The Southern Standard, by Duane Sherrill —
A federal jury has found Sheriff Jackie Matheny and Warren County liable in the wrongful termination suit of former employee Christie Wimley, determining her support for the sheriff’s political opponent was the motivating factor in her termination and thus a violation of her constitutional rights.
The jury assessed emotional distress damages in the amount of $36,000 and back pay in the amount of $9,705. Jurors also assessed punitive damages in the amount of $20,000 as punishment for her dismissal, finding, on the jury form, that the sheriff acted “with evil motive or intent toward the plaintiff to deprive her of her constitutionally protected rights or that his conduct was reckless or constituted callous disregard for her rights.”
The announcement of the verdict came after the 8-member jury heard a day and a half of testimony at the federal courthouse in Winchester, deliberating about three hours before returning its decision.
It was during trial that Wimley, who worked at the sheriff’s department for several years with no write-ups and good employee reports, said her supervisors started acting differently toward her around election time 2006.
Her family, Wimley said, supported Kenny Taylor for sheriff, although Wimley contends she was not outspoken about who she was voting for.
A short time after the election, Wimley said she was called into a meeting and told she would have to go to the night shift, something she said her supervisors knew she could not do because she had small children. Wimley was terminated after she refused to take the shift change, leading her to believe her politics were behind her firing.
Meanwhile, the defense maintained Wimley had become a bad employee, taking numerous smoke breaks and not doing her job.
“Christie would stir up a lot of trouble,” said jail supervisor Eddie Knowles during his testimony, maintaining it was job performance, not politics, which led to his move to change her shifts.
Sheriff Matheny, taking the stand Wednesday, said he did not even know who Wimley was supporting although he had seen a sign supporting Taylor in her father-in-law’s yard.
“I didn’t know who she voted for until now,” Matheny said, saying he had never based an employee move on politics, noting he has long employed Kenny Taylor’s sister-in-law. “I love my employees like my family and I don’t want to see any of them lose their jobs.”
Given the court victory, plaintiff attorney Michael Galligan admitted his office almost did not take the case given the sheriff’s popularity but he was moved by Wimley’s courageous stand.
“It was a courageous effort on Christie Wimley’s part to assert her rights against a popular sheriff and her former employer,” Galligan said, noting she felt wronged from the time she was fired. “From the beginning, she felt she had been an exemplary employee, as her records reflected, until it became known she supported Kenny Taylor for sheriff. Then she was unfairly singled out, violating her constitutional rights to vote for who she wants to vote for.”
Given the jury’s decision, Matheny said he is disappointed.
“I stand here with a clear conscience knowing I told the truth,” Matheny said, noting the jury apparently did not believe him when he testified that politics had nothing to do with Wimley’s termination. “I’m not a perfect man but I try to treat people right because I believe every person will be held accountable some day for their actions. I will go to my grave knowing I told the truth.”
• Punitive damage $20,000
• Emotional distress $36,000
• Back pay $9,705