Former State Bar secretary makes discrimination, invasion of privacy claims
CHARLESTON – A former state bar secretary alleges the agency’s executive director made “life a living hell” during her latter years at the office. Constance M. “Connie” Blessing says she felt compelled to quit the job to which she devoted over a quarter-century of her life in a lawsuit filed Feb. 26 in Kanawha Circuit Court. The West Virginia State Bar and Anita Casey are named as co-defendants in a constructive discharge suit In her complaint, Blessing, 62 and of Richmond Hill, Ga., alleges Casey, 60, became the bar’s executive director in 2008 and not only displayed open hostility toward her and the other bar employees, but also engaged in cronyism and winked at suspected criminal activity despite accusing the prior administration of engaging in it. In her suit, Blessing alleges immediately upon becoming executive director in January 2008, Casey “began criticizing operations of the state bar over the past 20 years.” The criticism included “constant disparagement of [Blessing’s] job performance over these years and of her abilities.” Jim Wright, the current president of the state bar, didn’t have much to say other than his agency will file the appropriate response at the appropriate time. “We don’t believe there is any merit to the allegations,” said Wright, an attorney with Steptoe & Johnson’s Wheeling office. Specifically, Blessing alleges Casey said she and other employees who were hired during Tom Tinder’s administration were “undereducated and overpaid,” the suit claims. Also, the suit alleges Casey said Blessing “covered up for Tim Tinder.” The bar’s executive director from 1989-2007, Tinder is now executive director of the West Virginia Bar Foundation, an nonprofit organization that, among other things, by order of the state Supreme Court administers the Interest On Lawyers Trust Account program. Bar employee salaries, Blessing avers, are approved by the bar’s board of governors and are comparable to other state bars across the U.S. Also, Blessing alleges Casey moved her office to the third floor of the bar’s previous location on Kanawha Blvd. Later, she again relocated after Casey hired Don Ryan from the law firm she previously worked – MacCorkle, Lavender and Sweeney – as a “technical expert,” she claims. According to the suit, Ryan was hired to do the bar’s data processing. Despite being a new employee, Blessing says his salary was nearly that of hers and greater than those of the other employees, all of whom worked there more than 20 years. After Ryan was hired, Casey moved Blessing into an office that required her to walk through his, the suit says. Because their offices were adjacent, Blessing says Ryan could easily hear her speaking to people on the telephone and often criticized her for “being too nice to bar members in her telephone conversations with them.” Also, Blessing maintains anytime she left the office, Ryan would inquire where she was going. According to Blessing, Ryan was often absent from the bar’s office. She alleges the absences were due to him “perform[ing] work for his former employer.” Nevertheless, Blessing alleges Ryan falsified his time sheets to reflect he was working for the bar. Though aware of this, Blessing says Casey did nothing about it largely because “Casey herself was absent excessively.” In her suit, Blessing says Casey’s belittling behavior continued unabated for the next three years. It included making her wade in water up to her ankles after a sewer line broke at the office on an unspecified date, working from the hospital while recovering from knee surgery and, despite having sufficient accumulated leave, being denied a day off from work following the death of her husband in January 2011, she says. Though she was later able to take a week off for his funeral, Blessing says she returned to work to find a quarterly submission she was working on deleted from her computer. Despite a court technician determining the deletion was deliberate, and “everyone in the office suspected Mr. Ryan had been responsible,” Blessing says “Casey offered [her] no support or assistance for restoring her records or making a determination how it had occurred.” Despite her husband’s death and her reaching retirement age, Blessing says she decided to remain with the state bar “as she loved her job.” In her 25 years with the bar, Blessing enjoyed interacting with members from across West Virginia “inquiring about spouses, children, and other personal matters.” However, the suit says Casey directed Blessing “to curtail these interactions as unprofessional.” As a result of Casey’s alleged continued belittlement, Blessing in mid-February 2011 changed her mind, and submitted her two-week notice. Despite timely submitting it, Blessing says she “had difficulty getting Ms. Casey to complete the paperwork to allow her to collect her pension and other benefits.” In her suit, Blessing says only through the intervention of Casey’s brother Nick, a partner in the Charleston law firm of Lewis Glasser Casey and Rollins and a state delegate to the American Bar Association, did her retirement paperwork get processed. Sometime after she submitted her two-week notice, Blessing says she discovered a tape recorder hidden behind photographs on a credenza in her office. After conferring with unspecified attorneys about finding the tape, she was advised to turn it over to the West Virginia State Police since it was now a criminal matter, she says. Along with State Police, Blessing says she informed Court Clerk Rory Perry about the tape recorder. Eventually, Elkins attorney Steve Jory was tapped to conduct an internal investigation. According to her suit, Ryan eventually admitted putting it there, “telling Casey and other state Bar officials he had done this to preserve some of her commentary for posterity,” the suit claims. In November 2011, Casey informed bar staff Ryan resigned for “personal reasons.” Prior to Ryan’s resignation, Blessing says she was interviewed by the FBI after WVSP referred the matter to them. At the time, she was told “an investigation was underway as it appeared part of a bigger issue.” Casey’s belittlement, Blessing says, continued after her retirement. Not only was Casey a no-show at her retirement party on March 2, 2012, at the Office of Disciplinary Counsel’s office at the City Center East building in Kanawha City, but also Blessing says she “had her files shredded.” In her suit, Blessing says Casey’s “deliberate and malicious conduct,” with the support of past bar presidents and board members “created a hostile, intolerable work environment” that “forc[ed] her to resign.” Because the bar is under its jurisdiction and certain staff members were made aware of Casey’s conduct, the Supreme Court and Chief Justice Brent Benjamin are named as co-defendants in the suit. In addition to constructive discharge, Blessing makes claims for sex and age discrimination, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Along with court costs and attorneys fees, Blessing seeks $200,000 in damages for lost income and benefits and an unspecified amount for invasion of privacy and emotional distress. She is represented by South Charleston attorney Richie Robb. The case is assigned to Judge Paul Zakaib.