June 3, 2020 – One year ago today, after being removed from her position as Executive Director of the Rape Crisis Center of Savannah (RCC), now Alderwoman-at-Large Kesha Gibson-Carter sued the RCC and the members of the Board of Directors, along with other members of local law enforcement and District Attorney Meg Heap, in a 10-complaint case alleging violation of her civil rights and racial discrimination in their wrongful dismissal action.
United States District Judge Stan Baker, sitting at the Southern District of Georgia for the U.S. Dept. of Justice, has now issued a 70-page Order on a long list of motions filed by defense attorneys, allowing substantial portions of the case to move forward to the discovery phase. Gibson-Carter has asked for a jury trial.
Judge Baker also denied motions by defense attorneys to remove pieces of evidence that Gibson-Carter’s legal team have filed over the past year.
In his Order, Judge Baker writes, “Plaintiff contends that these actions and her eventual termination were motivated, at least in part, by race and/or retaliatory animus stemming from her public statements. Based on these allegations, Plaintiff asserts a claim against the RCC for race discrimination in violation of Title VII (Count I), and claims against all Defendants for: race discrimination in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981 (Count II); retaliatory termination in violation of the First Amendment pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Counts V, VI); conspiracy to violate her First Amendment rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and U.S.C. § 1985(3) (Counts III, IV); injunctive relief by way of her reinstatement as Executive Director and declaratory relief through a declaration that Defendants’ violation of her First Amendment rights caused her termination (Count VII); punitive damages (Count VIII); attorney’s fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988 and Title VII (Count IX); and special damages for back wages, totaling $275,000 (Count X).”
The Judge has allowed Counts 1, II, VIII, IX and X to move forward. In summary, the Judge dismissed her desire to be reinstated as the Executive Director of the RCC (Count VII), and said her First Amendment rights were not violated, but has let her case move forward on the complaints for face discrimination, claims against all defendants regarding her dismissal, punitive damages, legal fees for her attorneys, and $275,000 in special damages for back wages.
She had also sued a number of police department chiefs and other employees of various government bodies involved in crime prevention, along with Heap, alleging they participated in a process of various letters, emails, communications and meetings to demand that the Board of Directors of the RCC remove her. However, Judge Baker has agreed to remove most of them from the case due to insufficient evidence submitted by her lawyers, in his ruling.
Defendants in the case that remain include Heather Booth, Lynne Wolf, Deena Camacho, Sandra Clark, Pat Douglas, Kimberly Fritz-Tanner, Joseph Hogan, Mike Hughes, Katie Joyner-Barber, Brett Lundy, Mary Roberts, and Kevin Shea who were all members of the Board of Directors for the RCC during some or all of the events at issue during the period of time covered in the case.
RCC Board Member Heather Booth resigned from the Board prior to the vote to terminate Gibson-Carter, so the Judge granted her motion to be dismissed from portions of the case.
A process of pre-trial discovery will now begin, according to the head of Gibson-Carter’s legal team, Atty. Mario Williams, founding partner of Williams Oinonen, LLC of Atlanta. The judge has ordered that all attorneys in the case, and plaintiffs meet within 14 days to propose a discovery calendar, which Williams hopes can be completed within six months. All evidence, documents, emails and disposing of witnesses will take place during this phase, followed by Baker issuing Summary Judgments and deciding if the case goes to trial.
“We are pleased to be able to prove the allegations in the Complaints, and we ‘re happy that the case is going to continue, and Miss Gibson-Carter’s charges will be vindicated. While we disagree with some of the rulings of Judge Baker, we will be at least holding some of the people that we allege violated her rights accountable,” said Atty. Williams. “We view this as a Constitutional Discrimination case, because the judge has said we made a plausible claim that she was discriminated against, and the action that we allege was wrongful termination, and the judge has allowed that claim to go forward so that we can prove that allegation.”
He noted that Judge Baker was a very hard working, and thorough judge. “Even if you don’t always agree with all of his rulings, he is a very thorough, hardworking judge,” added Atty. Williams.
The judge granted the ‘Motions to Dismiss’ by attorneys representing Wendy Furey, Gilbert Ballard, Robert Bryson, A. Blair Jeffcoat, Joseph H. Lumpkin, Matthew Libby, Mark Revenew, Meg Heap, Heather Booth, Rose Grant Robinson, and Robert Merriman from the case, “as to all claims asserted against each of them.”
Gibson-Carter worked as the Executive Director for the RCC from 2013 until her termination in June 2018. The RCC is funded by the City of Savannah, Chatham County, the United Way of the Coastal Empire, and Georgia’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (“CJCC”), and it serves and advocates on behalf of sexual assault victims in Chatham County and six other nearby counties.
She received positive feedback and performance reviews, prior to being removed, and the Board of Directors of the RCC had specifically commended her advocacy and public speaking skills, in evidence her legal team has provided the Court.
Attorneys for the Defendants, however, filed evidence of issues in her employment going back to 2013, which were evidence given “in a binder” to the RCC Board at a pivotal Feb. 2018 meeting that she was not allowed to attend. Her attorneys submitted responses to Judge Baker on a a number of the personnel issues cited in “the binder.”
Her employment came to a head following two appearances she made before the Savannah City Council in December 2017 where she spoke publicly about her concerns surrounding deficiencies in the system that prosecutes sexual assault offenders, including accusations about the work of the Savannah Police Dept. and District Attorney Mep Heap’s office. A backlog in processing of rape kits was also a public issue during that time period.
In her complaint, she alleges that all of the Defendants then conspired to intimidate her so that she would not speak publicly in that manner again, and to instigate and ensure her removal as Executive Director of the RCC.
In his Order, Judge Baker writes, “Plaintiff contends that these actions and her eventual termination were motivated, at least in part, by race and/or retaliatory animus stemming from her public statements.”
The Independent Investigation
Following the pivotal February 2018 meeting, the RCC Board hired a law firm to perform “an independent, external review in light of the issues raised by the community partners and agencies and to prepare a detailed review and evaluation plan designed to help the RCC identify issues and best address the perceived concerns. The firm interviewed Plaintiff, ten victims, and an unspecified number of unidentified community partner representatives, and, on April 3, 2018, Atty. B. Davis Butler provided the RCC with a report containing “several conclusions and recommendations.”
Throughout her filings, Gibson-Carter’s attorneys quote portions of his report, as well as the email to which the report was attached. The email stated: “We like Kesha and think she has done a very good job on behalf of victims. The community partners gave us no choice but to recommend that her employment be terminated,” her team states.Atty. Butler’s report also stated that she was “completely gracious, bright, kind, and passionate about the victims,” and that The Complaint also provides examples of times Plaintiff had previously made public statements of which the Board was aware (i.e., comments about backlogged rape kits in Georgia and about the Pursuing Justice for Rape Victims Act, which were published in articles in 2015 and 2016, and comments about “fighting misogyny and rape culture” and “rais[ing] awareness and stop[ping] sexual violence,” which were published in articles in 2017) and she alleges that she had not been admonished by the Board or otherwise told to change her behavior at those times,” writes the judge in his Order.
Her legal team submitted statements to the judge that state, “the report did not identify any instances of misconduct that would warrant her termination. The report did, however, describe “‘significant problems with the behavior of the community partners,’ noting that ‘none of the community partner representatives wanted to meet with [Butler] individually and confidentially, as requested; instead, they asked to meet collectively.’” (Id.) Plaintiff does not indicate whether the report described the substance of Butler’s meeting with the “community partner representatives;” however, she does quote Butler’s commentary that, during the meeting, he “was particularly frustrated with the [community partner representatives’] treatment of Ray Smith, an African American human resources expert that [Butler] had retained to help [him] on this project.”
More text from the Order regarding the work of Atty. Butler: “According to the Complaint, the report stated that “[s]everal officials were overtly dismissive of Ray and simply rude to both [Ray and Butler] . . . . One senior official would not shake Ray’s hand and completely ignored [Ray and Butler].” (quoting the report).) The report also advised of Butler’s belief that “there could possibly be a racial element involved in the challenges the RCC is facing” …. And he wrote “the Board did not provide clear [or proper] detailed guidance and boundaries to [Plaintiff] regarding the level of ‘advocacy’ which she was permitted to engage in.”
“The Complaint does not elaborate on the basis for this conclusion, nor does it indicate that this somehow factored into the termination recommendation. Butler’s termination recommendation apparently was simply expressed in the email to which the report was attached, stating: “The community partners gave us no choice but to recommend that [Plaintiff’s] employment be terminated.” (quoting the email),” write Judge Baker in the Order of May 29, 2020.
Sometime in April 2018, Kevin Shea, an RCC Board member, drafted a letter to the Savannah Police Department on behalf of the RCC saying that the pressure from community partners left it “with no option than to replace the current Executive Director,” according to evidence her legal team provided to Judge Baker. The letter also allegedly advised that, “[p]rior to taking the drastic step of replacing the RCC Executive Director, the Board would like to confirm that this is indeed the only option being made available to it, and that it is still the intent of the Savannah Police Department to bring advocacy and/or SANE services in-house to replace the RCC for cases worked by [the Savannah Police Department].” The letter requested a response within three weeks and noted that a lack of response “would be taken by the Board to mean that you continue to require the termination of [Plaintiff] in order to ensure the survival of the RCC in its present state…” But, the judge noted that there is no indication of whether anyone with the Savannah Police Department responded, per the evidence submitted so far by Gibson-Carter’s team.
She was asked to resign June 5, 2018, but she declined to do so, and the RCC terminated her role as Executive Director that day without giving her a reason for her termination. Georgia is an “at will” employment state.
“According to Plaintiff, Defendant Clark—the only non-Caucasian member of the Board—voted for Plaintiff’s termination but told Plaintiff “she did not feel that she was presented with all the information and that if she had been, she may have voted otherwise.” Gibson-Carter’s evidence submitted also states that Clark was “the only Board member not interviewed by the investigating attorney, Butler.” The Complaint repeatedly alleges that Defendant Shea “drafted” the letter, but it does not actually allege that the letter was sent to, delivered to, or received by—much less responded to by—anyone at the Savannah Police Department, per the judge’s Order.
The Defendants Removed From the Case
The defendants whose Motion to Dismiss were granted by Judge Baker were not directly affiliated with the RCC but, through their employment with or representation of other organizations, had some sort of working relationship with Gibson-Carter and the RCC. They include:
- Joseph Lumpkin, Chief of the Savannah Chatham Metropolitan Police Department;
- Meg Heap, District Attorney for the Eastern Judicial District in Georgia;
- Rose Grant-Robinson, employee of the Coastal Children’s Advocacy Center;
- Wendy Furey, Special Assistant Attorney General, Chatham County Department of Family and Children’s Services (“DFACS”);
- Gilbert Ballard, Chief of the Garden City Police Department;
- Matt Libby, Chief of the Port Wentworth Police Department;
- Robert Bryson, Chief of the Tybee Island Police Department;
- Robert Merriman, Chief of the Thunderbolt Police Department;
- A. Blair Jeffcoat, Chief of the Bloomingdale Police Department;
- Mark Revenew, Chief of the Pooler Police Department;
- Cheryl Branch, Executive Director of SAFE Shelter, Center for Domestic Violence;
- Cheryl Rogers, Director of a Victim-Witness Assistance Program.
These individuals were also members of a group Gibson-Carter’s legal team refers to as the “Savannah Community Partners” (SCP) in their filing.
Ten of the twelve SCP Defendants are Caucasian, the Judge found, with Lumpkin and GrantRobinson being African American.
Some claims against Defendants Cheryl Branch and Cheryl Rogers, who did not file motions to dismiss, remain pending, it appears.
The judge has now directed the Clerk of Court to lift the discovery stay imposed in this case and ordered the remaining parties to conduct a Rule 26(f) conference within fourteen (14) days from the filing of his order on May 29, and to file a Rule 26(f) Report within seven (7) days from the Rule 26(f) conference.
Gibson-Carter’s Complaint Overview
(Note: long passages of text in italics is direct verbiage from judge’s Order, for clarity).
The Rape Crisis Center had what was termed a working relationship with each of the SCP Defendants’ respective organizations. In February 2017, Gibson-Carter, Heap, Lumpkin, Grant-Robinson and Branch signed a “Memorandum of Understanding” on behalf of their organizations, with each agency pledging to take on various responsibilities to effectively serve victims of sexual assault and related crimes. For example, the RCC agreed to educate the community about sexual assault prevention.
Gibson-Carter spoke at the December 2017 City Council Meeting, roughly ten months after she signed the Memorandum, and “publicly expressed her concerns about deficiencies in the Chatham County District Attorney’s Office and its law enforcement affiliates’ arrest, prosecution, and conviction rates of sexual assault offenders,” the Judge’s ruling states.
Jack Lumpkin, the then-Chief of the Savannah Police Department, was present at this council meeting, but she does not allege that he reacted or responded to Plaintiff’s comments. There is also no allegation that any other Defendants were present at this meeting when Plaintiff spoke.
But, at some point after the City Council meeting, Defendant Heap, the District Attorney, “sat down with” Plaintiff and advised her “that she could be charged with a misdemeanor for neglecting to redact a [minor] child’s [last] name from an email [she sent] in August 2017, according to Gibson-Carter’s allegations. “According to her Complaint, Plaintiff had already “acknowledged and [taken] responsibility” for this “oversight” in an October 2017 letter to an assistant district attorney (“ADA”) in Heap’s office, and “this issue was never brought up by Defendant Meg Heap until after [Plaintiff had] publicly stated her concerns about the deficiencies [in] the Chatham County District Attorney’s office,” according to the Order.
Gibson-Carter subsequently attended a second Savannah City Council meeting in December 2017 where she “publicly remarked” that Defendant Heap and her Office’s “reaction to [Plaintiff’s] comments at the last city council meeting was ‘workplace bullying at its finest,” stating “that she would not “give up, let up or stop or keep quiet.”
She alleges that Lumpkin and Heap decided after the meeting that action needed to be taken against her for exercising her First Amendment rights, but the Judge ruled “this allegation is not entitled to any assumption of truth for purposes of the Motion to Dismiss.” That complaint has been removed from the overall case.
Next, in January 2018, Gibson-Carter alleged that “a collection of Savannah Community Partners” delivered a letter to the RCC Board “complaining that ‘important community relationships ha[d] become unnecessarily strained and less than productive.’”
The letter “complained of dissatisfaction but did not provide specifics as to any of the perceived challenges or suggestions on how to solve them; rather, the SCP requested time to speak with the entire RCC Board.” The letter was signed by Savannah Community Partners” and Lumpkin, Ballard, Libby, Bryson, Branch, Grant-Robinson, Merriman, Jeffcoat, Revenew, Heap, Furey, and Rogers.
“This group of individuals had not previously communicated any collective concerns about Gibson-Career to the RCC Board, according to the filing.
Then in February, at the monthly meeting of the RCC Board of Directors, Gibson-Carter alleges that “the SCP met with the RCC Board … and requested the removal of [Plaintiff] as the Executive Director.” Gibson-Carter had asked to attend the meeting, but her request was denied.
In part, it appears that Judge Baker removed the chiefs and other members of the SCP from the case because: “Plaintiff did not attach the letter as an exhibit to her Complaint, nor has any party provided a copy of it with their motions or briefs. Because Plaintiff did not attach a copy of the letter to her Complaint, and due to vague wording in the Complaint and Plaintiff’s responsive briefing, it is not clear whether all of the individuals who signed the letter have been named as Defendants in this case, or whether, instead, there are additional “Savannah Community Partners” who signed the letter but have not been named as Defendants. Despite alleging that both Lumpkin and Grant-Robinson are African American), Plaintiff proceeds to repeatedly assert that only one of the signatories was African American, … The Complaint repeatedly refers generally to “the SCP” as participating in the meeting, as if it is a larger organized group or entity (with members other than the SCP Defendants). The Complaint explicitly states that SCP Defendant Furey attended this meeting, it does not allege that any of the other SCP Defendants were present.”
In this detailed filing, there is other evidence provided by the defense team. “At the February 2018 meeting, “the SCP” provided the Board with a recording of a phone call between Plaintiff and a Savannah Police Department officer as well as a binder containing more than twenty-five “complaints” and/or “issues” with Plaintiff dating back to 2013 … The Complaint only provides information about four such issues. First, the binder contained a complaint alleging that Plaintiff had “unilaterally” altered the “SART Sexual Assault Protocol to dictate that Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners . . . would perform sexual assault examinations on prepubescent victims. According to Plaintiff, this protocol change occurred more than one year prior to the February 2018 meeting, and, while she admits that she “proposed a revision” to the protocol prior to its alteration,” but she denies that she changed processes significantly.
In another piece of evidence in the case, Gibson-Carter alleges “that an SCP member named Lindretta Grindle Kramer, an ADA from Heap’s office, attended the meeting and “was especially vocal in her call for removal of [Plaintiff].” … Plaintiff also alleges that Savannah Police Department Assistant Chief Robert Gavin attended and “was especially vocal in his call for removal of [Plaintiff].” … There is no specific allegation that Defendant Heap accompanied Kramer, her ADA, or that Defendant Lumpkin accompanied Gavin, an assistant chief at the police department. Moreover, the Complaint alleges that Defendant Lumpkin signed the January 2018 letter on his last day of work for the Savannah Police Department, undermining any implication that he attended the February 2018 meeting. Finally, Plaintiff alleges that Board Member Clark told her that she (Clark) was “the only African American in the room” at the February 2018 meeting, (id. at p. 23), which indicates that neither Defendant Lumpkin nor Defendant Grant-Robinson, who are both African American, would have been present.”
Another issue from the binder condemned Gibson-Carter’s “handling of a complaint about an RCC employee who allegedly made disparaging comments to law enforcement representatives during a victim interview. (Id. at p. 19.) Plaintiff avers that she first learned about this issue in an email sent to her by Defendant Lumpkin just prior to the first December 2017 City Council meeting. (Id.) After receiving the complaint, Plaintiff spoke to both the employee and the victim (who told Plaintiff the employee had done nothing wrong).11 (Id.) The Complaint does not state precisely how Plaintiff handled the matter, but it does indicate that she did not fire the employee. According to Plaintiff, the RCC Board was aware of this issue prior to the February 2018 meeting and had not “admonish[ed] . . . [her] handling of the situation,” and had actually “supported [her] actions.”
Regarding Gibson-Carter’s complaints of discrimination, the Judge found, “Prior to the February 2018 meeting, Joyner-Barber told Plaintiff that she had received the January 2018 letter and that “it [was] racial.” Joyner-Barber then recommended that Plaintiff hire a Caucasian female assistant to “smooth over the differences with the community partners.” After the February 2018 meeting, Joyner-Barber told Plaintiff that “the allegations presented in the February 2018 meeting all came from Caucasian individuals.” (Id. at p. 23.) Additionally, Clark told Plaintiff that, during the meeting, she was the only African American in the room and that she “felt like the . . . meeting was racially motivated.”
Clark also told Gibson-Carter that Devon Adams, an African American Sergeant over the Special Victims Unit at Savannah Metro, was not present at the meeting. Gibson-Carter alleged. “There is no indication, however, that Mr. Adams was a signatory to the January 2018 letter (or was otherwise a member of “the SCP”), per the filing. Gibson-Carter was told that, “Douglas, a member of the RCC Board, had been “exceptionally critical” of Plaintiff and “wanted to have the Board vote for her termination that evening," according to statements by her legal team.
In late February 2018, Gibson-Carter met with the RCC Board “to refute or accept and take responsibility for the claims made against her by the SCP.” She also submitted a written rebuttal and “accompanying support to all claims made against her.” The Board asked Plaintiff “why the community partners were coming forward now about alleged issues dating back to 2013.”
Editor's Note: Attempts to reach District Attorney Meg Heap for comment were unsuccessful.