CATLETTSBURG — A settlement was reached in a civil lawsuit against the Boyd County clerk and fiscal court that alleged a former deputy clerk was terminated under conditions that violated the Kentucky Whistleblower Act.
Counsel for the plaintiff, Leslie Donta, and for the defendants, Boyd Clerk Debbie Jones and the fiscal court, settled the case outside of court through mediation on March 2. As a result, the county’s insurer, the Kentucky Association of Counties, or KACo, provided Donta with $60,000, The Daily Independent learned through an open records request.
Donta, who worked in the Boyd County Clerk’s Office between 2011 and 2015, had filed the lawsuit in September of 2015 in Boyd Circuit Court. The case had been set for a jury trial on April 17.
Donta’s attorney, Shane Sidebottom, of Covington, said “it’s unfortunate that this had to be resolved through the litigation channel, but we were happy to be able to reach an amicable settlement.”
Attorney Bruce Leslie represented the defendants. He noted that because the case never went to trial and was settled through mediation, “there was no admission of guilt” by the county.
Donta was fired from her job as deputy clerk in June of 2015 for reasons she claimed violated Kentucky statute 61.102, also known as the Kentucky Whistleblower Act.
Donta — whose husband, former Boyd County sheriff’s deputy Rob Donta, ran for sheriff in 2014, but lost in the primary — had not technically been a payroll employee of the clerk’s office until the spring of 2015. She’d previously worked in the office as a contract laborer and salary grant employee through the Kentucky Department of Library and Archives, according to court documents. She was terminated from her payroll position during a 90-day probationary period on June 22.
According to Donta’s original complaint filed in circuit court, Donta said her termination came about five weeks after she noticed money was missing from her purse on May 11, 2015, and reported it to Jones.
The next day, according to the complaint, Donta was informed by a coworker who sat in a desk near her, Lynn Jarvis, that Jones’ daughter, Tiffany Jones, also a former deputy clerk, “was seen near the plaintiff’s purse while the plaintiff went to the restroom.”
Donta reported an alleged theft to Kentucky State Police Post 14 in Ashland.
On or about May 15, 2015, Kentucky State Trooper Jim Ryland contacted the county clerk, according to court documents. Ryland had been assigned to investigate reports of money being stolen from the plaintiff’s purse and another purse that belonged to an employee of the judge executive’s office, per the documents.
Donta alleged that sometime after Ryland spoke with the plaintiff, Debbie Jones told employees they were not to speak to anyone, including law enforcement.
Donta said she also noticed a “change in treatment” from Jones during work hours over the next week, and a change in relationship and frequency of communication between the two outside of work, according to the complaint.
Donta called Jones on June 19 after a work day to “discuss the diminished relationship and communications between the two, to no avail,” per the complaint. Donta said she expressed concern “employees may be stealing from other employees” and management needed to step in, but Jones told her she heard “to [sic] many rumors” and “was not going to discuss it further,” according to Donta’s complaint.
On June 22, the following Monday, Jones called Donta into her office for a private meeting and fired her. Jarvis, who did not file suit, was also fired from her position around the same time, per the complaint.
Donta said she was told her firing was because of “gossiping,” in the complaint, which also alleges Jarvis was given the same reason upon her firing. Donta — and Jarvis — were Kentucky “at-will employees,” meaning they could be fired for any reason at any time, unless the termination violated certain rights.
Donta’s suit alleged her termination was based on retaliation because she spoke with state police and cooperated with an investigation into money being stolen from purses within the Boyd County Courthouse, which she argued violated the state whistleblower act.
In court documents dated Dec. 18, Jones responded to Donta’s claims. Jones said Donta was fired for “extreme and excessive absenteeism, leaving her work station without permission and leaving the building, which left the Clerk’s money/cash drawer unattended, continuous gossiping and acting extremely unprofessionally” in more than one phone conversation.
Jones denied telling any clerk’s office employees to refrain from speaking with any third parties, including law enforcement, about any alleged employee theft. She said she was not aware of “any written correspondence of any kind received” from any law enforcement agencies regarding employee theft, per the document. She said Ryland did call her to notify her that her daughter had been arrested and needed to be picked up at the Boyd County Detention Center, according to the court documents. That arrest was not related to the alleged theft of money from a purse in the clerk’s office.
On the termination of Jarvis, Jones said its details were not relevant to matters alleged in Donta’s complaint.
Jones said she did have a phone conversation with Donta outside work hours, but refuted the substance of that conversation Donta alleged was discussed.
In a phone interview with The Daily Independent, Jones said the settlement “shows the case had no merit.” She said Donta missed a total of 280 days of work during the years she worked in the office as a contract laborer and salary grant employee, and reiterated that Donta’s employment as deputy clerk was probationary.
Sidebottom said Donta “is pleased she can get this resolved and move on with her life.”
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