CLARKSBURG - The former manager of the animal shelter in Preston County alleges voicing her opinion about both the decline in animals being euthanized and the shelter’s condition got her fired from it.
The Preston County Commission and Craig Jennings, its current president, are named as co-defendants in an eight-count civil rights suit filed by Courtney Austin. In her complaint filed May 3 in U.S. District Court, Austin, 29 and a Newburg resident, alleges the commission had no problem with her using a social networking site to promote the shelter until earlier this year and made comments she considered fraudulent.
According to the suit, Austin was hired as the shelter manager in September 2011. More than a year later, through her own Facebook account she created a page called “Preston County Animal Shelter.”
The PCAS page, Austin says, was used “to disseminate information regarding the Preston County Animal Shelter to the general public.” Though the page was not the county’s property, the suit avers the commission was well aware of it.
According to the suit, the PCAS page did not become an issue until Feb. 19, 2012. That day, Austin posted a message that said “Guess what everybody!!! Yesterday marked 60 DAYS WITHOUT ANY EUTHANASIA!!!!! IF YOU LIKE THIS, please comment or LIKE THIS POST SO WE CAN SHOW EVERYONE THERE ARE OTHER OPTIONS!!!!!!”
The next day, Austin posted a comment in response to her message. According to the suit, it said, “The more people we get to like this comment, the more we can brag about it. Get your friends to like No Euthanasia for PCAS!!!”
Eight days later, Austin says she received a written warning from the commission regarding her comments. The warning reminded her of unspecified prior warnings it gave her about Preston County moving toward a no-kill shelter.
However, Austin avers the letter was the first time the commission ever warned her about making any references to a no-kill shelter.
According to the suit, nothing more was said about messages or comments made on the PCAS page until Jan. 23. On that day, Austin says she posted a message seeking volunteers to help transport animals due to frozen water in the kennels because of a lack of heat.
Prior to posting the Jan. 23 message calling for volunteer transporters, Austin says the commission was aware the waterline into the shelter routinely froze in the winter. Though the commission did solicit bids to replace the heating system in the shelter, Austin on Jan. 30 via email voiced her concerns with its plan, she says.
According to the suit, the commission asked Austin for the password to the PCAS page. When she informed it the password was linked to her personal account, it asked her to change it, the suit says.
When Austin refused to change the password, the suit says she was summoned to meet with Cathy Mace, the county administrator, and Vicki Cole, one of the commissioners, on Feb. 1.
Sometime after the meeting began, Austin says she was informed of her immediate suspension. According to the suit, when Austin informed Mace and Cole she intended to discuss the suspension with an attorney, the meeting abruptly ended.
However, Mace and Cole allegedly informed Austin she would remain suspended until she could meet with the entire commission at its next regularly scheduled meeting on Feb. 4. She was instructed to meet with it 30 minutes before the meeting started, she says.
Though it is unclear if Austin met with them, the suit says the commission’s published agenda gave no indication it intended to discuss any personnel matters, including her suspension. However, during the course of the meeting, Jennings announced the commission decided to fire Austin, she says.
According to the suit, the commission’s decision to fire Austin was a result of her “perpetrat[ing] a fraud [upon the County Commission].” Specifically, Jennings said the fraud was Austin leading “friends and family to believe that there were [sic] no water or heat at the shelter,” the suit says.
A month later, Jennings made statements to the media about possible mismanagement of shelter funds while Austin was manager.As a result, he said the shelter would have to close “in order to clarify [those] financial issues.”
Austin says the statements Jennings made about her mismanaging shelter funds are false and were made with the intent to defame her.
In her suit, Austin claims the commission’s and Jennings’ actions have caused her to incur, among other things, “loss of pay, physical pain, emotional pain, suffering, inconvenience, mental anguish, [and] loss of enjoyment of life.” Along with ones for wrongful termination, defamation, and violation of the state whistleblower law, Austin makes a claim against Jennings and the commission for violation of the state Wage Payment and Collection Act in failing to remit her final paycheck within 72 hours of her termination.
Along with court costs and attorneys fees, Austin seeks damages to include back pay, front pay or reinstatement in lieu of front pay. She is represented by Stephen B. Farmer and Matthew H. Nelson with Farmer, Cline and Campbell’s Morgantown office.
The case is assigned to Judge Irene B. Keeley. The shelter reopened April 1.
U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia, case number 13-cv-135