ABINGDON, Va. — A federal judge said last Monday that two former Abingdon employees and their attorney have presented little actual evidence backing up claims that they experienced discrimination, defamation and a toxic work environment from the Town Council and their supervisors.
Judges James Jones, who presided over the combined hearing at the Western District Court of Virginia in Abingdon, said he still needs time to consider whether or not he should dismiss the lawsuits.
The two lawsuits — one from Greg Kelly, a former town manager who resigned in May 2018, and the other from Deborah Coffey Icenhour, the former town attorney who resigned in July 2018 — are up for dismissal because they are similar in nature. No formal decision was made during the hearing.
Abingdon Vice Mayor Cindy Patterson and Mayor Wayne Craig were both present for the hearing. Icenhour’s suit lists Patterson as a defendant and mentions Craig by name.
Kelly’s suit, filed in August, states that his supervisors, the Town Council and the mayor created a hostile work environment and that his rights were violated under the Americans with Disabilities Act when the town did not provide accommodations for his high blood pressure, depression and anxiety, which are recognized under the ADA. It also states that, by contract, Kelly was promised a severance package, which he never received.
Icenhour’s suit, also filed in August, states there was a hostile work environment and that she was defamed by a comment Patterson made during a September 2017 meeting. Patterson told the council that there had been an increase in Freedom of Information Act requests because the citizens didn’t trust the town or Icenhour, who was the town’s FOIA officer at the time.
The suit also states that comments made by Craig in fall 2016 that Icenhour was “in bed with Food City” and another in February 2017 about Icenhour’s “estrogen level” were examples of sexual discrimination in the workplace.
Cameron Bell, of the law firm Penn, Stuart & Eskridge, representing the town, asked for charges made in both Kelly’s and Icenhour’s suits to be dismissed. Bell said Kelly never specified what his disabilities were or what accommodations he needed, and neither Kelly nor his attorney, Thomas Strelka, had made factual allegations about the town’s supposed retaliation.
Strelka, with the Strelka Law Office, who represents both Kelly and Icenhour, said Kelly filed multiple discrimination charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but the town did not respond, which Strelka argued showed a pattern of the town ignoring Kelly’s accommodation requests. In the charges Kelly made to the EEOC, Strelka said, Kelly claimed that the poor treatment he received from Town Council and his supervisors caused his disabilities to flare up and that he requested better treatment due to declining health and well-being.
Jones said Kelly’s team could not allege Kelly was subjected to insults, harassment, retaliation or defamation without providing clear examples.
In regard to the Icenhour lawsuit, Bell argued that it should be dismissed because what Patterson said was an opinion expressed to further a legislative discussion and was not defamatory.
Jones said Craig’s comment about Icenhour’s “estrogen level” was one of the few concrete examples backing up the plaintiff’s claims. However, Jones said he had doubts that Craig’s comment that Icenhour was in bed with Food City was actually of a sexual nature, since Icenhour is a person and Food City is a commercial entity.
Strelka said he would be willing to provide more evidence backing up the claims made in the lawsuit. Jones said he may accept new evidence but that Strelka, Icenhour and Kelly, who is also an attorney, should not have submitted their initial complaints with so few facts.
Jones said he was not ready to issue an opinion in either case and would release opinions at later dates.