Former County Employees File Discrimination Lawsuit — The Neligh News

Lawsuit Filed In Federal Court

By LuAnn Schindler,

Neligh News Managing Editor

A complaint has been filed in U.S. District Court against Antelope County by two former employees.

Jennie Martinez and Alberta Willers, both of Neligh, filed an employment discrimination complaint, June 5, 2015.

Martinez and Willers were employed by Antelope as office assistants since 2013 and 2014, respectively.

The complaint alleges, “The plaintiffs were employed in non-management and non-policy making positions with the defendant at all times” and “the plaintiffs satisfactorily performed their job duties during their tenure of employment,” according to court documents.

Following the defeat of incumbent Antelope County Assessor Heather McWhorter, in the Nov. 2014 general election, current Antelope County Assessor, Kelly Mueller, “told plaintiffs they would have to reapply for their jobs,” according to the document.

Both plaintiffs submitted applications.

The complaint alleges Mueller hired less qualified individuals who had supported her during the 2014 campaign.

According to the court document, “Approximately 30 minutes after Ms. Mueller was sworn into office as County Assessor on Jan. 9, 2015, she terminated the plaintiffs’ employment with Antelope County, Nebraska.”

The plaintiffs contend they either openly supported McWhorter’s re-election campaign and failed to support Mueller’s campaign and were exercising their constitutional right to protected speech or conduct by act or omission regarding the campaign.

According to the complaint, “Mueller retaliated against the plaintiffs by terminating their employment minutes after taking office.”

In Dec. 2014 or early 2015, Martinez applied for an advertised position in the Antelope County Clerk’s office.

The advertisement ran in the Nov. 19 and Nov. 26, 2014, issues of the Neligh News and Leader. An application deadline of Dec. 3, 2014, was listed.

Martinez alleges her employment application was rejected by Antelope County Clerk, Lisa Payne, due to Martinez’s protected speech and conduct

Martinez and Willers are seeking reinstatement to their previously held positions “and/or the positions they sought with the defendant with an award of back pay, job-related benefits and job related increments to which they are entitled, including interest; damages for pain, suffering, humiliation inconvenience and emotional distress; damages for the county’s willful and reckless conduct; attorney’s fees and protection from further retaliation by the defendant.”

Antelope County, represented by Erin Ebeler of Woods & Aitken, LLP of Lincoln, responded to the complaint on July 6.

In the response, the county  states, “Ms. Mueller and Ms. Payne took reasonable measures to be aware of their duties and obligations under the U.S. Constitution, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and the Nebraska Constitution in connection with fulfilling their obligations under such laws.”

According to the document,  “Martinez and Willers did not suffer tangible employment action connected with any alleged retaliation.”

“Any and all actions defendant took with respect to plaintiffs’ employment were for legitimate, non-discriminatory and non-retaliatory reasons and were taken in good-faith exercise of the reasonable business judgment of defendant.”

The county’s response counters that the plaintiffs’ “failed to mitigate their damages and therefore, should be barred.”

Additionally, unemployment benefits or other subsequent income “must credit or offset plaintiffs’ alleged damages.”

Paul Eiden, Nebraska Intergovernmental Risk Management Association property and liability claims manager, said the county’s liability policy would appear to be applicable.

NIRMA will continue to represent the county as the case progresses.