August 4, 2018 10:05:18 PM
Alex Holloway - [email protected]
A former Oktibbeha County Road Department worker has filed a federal lawsuit against the county and its road manager Fred Hal Baggett. It claims, among other things, Baggett once said the worker looked like a "black savage Viking."
Justin Denson, 29, is a former sign technician who worked for the road department from April 2015 to November 2017, according to the complaint filed July 9 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi-Northern Division.
Denson accuses Baggett of making several racially charged statements toward him and retaliating to the employee's complaints by firing him.
Both Denson and Baggett are black.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, after reviewing Denson's complaint, gave him the right to sue.
Baggett, who has been road manager since July 10, 2017, also faces a harassment complaint from a second employee, Casey Harrison, whose attorney has formally notified county supervisors by letter of his grievances.
Suit claims Baggett was hired because he is black
Denson had dreadlocks and a beard -- for religious reasons, according to the complaint -- while working for the road department. The complaint claims Baggett took issue with Denson's appearance and said he looked like a "thug" on several occasions.
On Aug. 29, Baggett reportedly told Denson he didn't like his appearance, saying, "I can only imagine what white people think of you because you look hideous and repulsive. You look like a black savage Viking."
Denson spoke to District 5 Supervisor Joe Williams about Baggett's harassment, the complaint said. Williams allegedly told Denson that Board President Orlando Trainer and District 3 Supervisor Marvell Howard convinced him to hire Baggett as road manager -- despite issues with his work with previous counties -- because he would be "fair to 'us,' meaning blacks."
The vote to hire Baggett fell along racial lines, with the three black supervisors -- Trainer, Howard and Williams -- overriding District 1's John Montgomery and District 4's Bricklee Miller, both of whom are white.
Williams declined to comment when contacted by The Dispatch.
Howard declined to comment other than to deny the accusation he hired Baggett based on race.
Trainer also denied racial bias in hiring the road manager.
"To hire or not hire anybody based on race alone is discrimination and we wouldn't do that," Trainer said. "Anyone we've hired, including the young man that filed that suit, I hope was based on their ability to work for the county."
Baggett suspended Denson in November. Denson then spoke with County Administrator Emily Garrard about the suspension, and she told him to submit a written statement for his appeal, which he did. A few days later, Denson contacted Garrard, who told him his termination was final.
Louis Watson, a Jackson attorney representing Denson, said the county's and Baggett's actions violate Title VII and Section 1981 of the U.S. Code. Those laws, he said, provide legal protection for reporting racial discrimination in the workplace.
"When you complain about racial discrimination that is called engaging in protected activity," Watson said. "He engaged in protected activity by making a complaint."
Denson is seeking punitive damages, as determined by a jury, against Baggett.
Both Baggett and Garrard declined to comment on the complaint or related issues on Friday.
In a separate issue, county employee Casey Harrison hired attorney William Starks after also reportedly enduring derogatory remarks from Baggett.
Harrison, according to a May 5 letter from Starks to county officials, filed a complaint with the EEOC for discriminatory remarks Baggett reportedly made. The complaint was dismissed. Harrison has also been interviewed by the Office of the State Auditor as part of an investigation into Supervisor Howard potentially wrongly giving county property to a private citizen.
Baggett, according to Starks' letter, has harassed Harrison and threatened his job, at one point allegedly saying, "I'm not even going to do the paperwork. I'm just going to terminate you." Baggett also reportedly told Harrison he was "complaining like a schoolgirl" and has made references about "panties."
The Dispatch could not reach Starks for comment by press time.
Supervisor accuses Baggett of 'verbal attacks'
Board attorney Rob Roberson said Denson's suit has been reported to the Mississippi Association of Supervisors Insurance Trust, the county's insurance provider. He said the county is waiting for the provider to determine how to proceed.
"We're not interfering with whatever investigation they need to do," he said. "I'm telling my people to stay out of it until we know what's going on. We need to find out all the allegations and make sure we're giving everybody their due process."
District 4 Supervisor Bricklee Miller, who's publicly locked horns with Baggett in past supervisor meetings, said she's concerned about the allegations. The claims, both from Harrison and Denson, reinforce a pattern of behavior she's seen from Baggett, she said.
"I think it's absolutely important that we protect our employees," Miller said. "We have had a number of EEOC claims filed, as well as Mr. Baggett making verbal attacks on me and calling me names."
District 1 Supervisor John Montgomery said he's willing to see what comes of the lawsuit before taking any personnel action.
"Until any decision is made, nothing is going to change how I treat or work with Mr. Baggett or any employee," Montgomery said. "I've got a great deal of respect for all parties involved here."
To the Harrison matter, Roberson confirmed supervisors received the letter -- a copy of which was anonymously mailed to The Dispatch -- and said the allegations are "serious." He's spoken to Starks about it and the county has looked into the matter.
"We have investigated and tried to make sure that any allegations were addressed and that our employees don't feel threatened," Roberson said. "We don't want anyone to make a comment or statements that make our employees feel that way."
Alex Holloway was formerly a reporter with The Dispatch.