Matthews sues county, Gee and Clark

Published 10:02 am Wednesday, January 4, 2017

A former Lunenburg County employee has filed a civil suit against Lunenburg County, County Administrator Tracy M. Gee and her assistant, Nicole Clark, for wrongful termination, defamation of character and actions that led to prolonged “pain and suffering” after a “near fatal attack” by a dog in 2012.

Robert L. Matthews, of Victoria, filed a 14-page amended complaint and demand for jury trial in Lunenburg Circuit Court on Dec. 30. He seeks reinstitution of employment, back wages, leave, retirement, health insurance and other benefits, compensatory damages of $100,000 for wrongful termination, $400,000 for “pain, suffering, impairments, disabilities and mental anguish,” and hundreds of dollars in court costs, physician fees and Freedom of Information Act requests.

The lawsuit represents one side of a legal argument. Gee and Clark had not filed responses to the new suit as of Friday afternoon.

Gee declined comment Monday afternoon.

According to his lawsuit, the county hired Matthews in June 2007 as a building and grounds technician and named him an assistant animal control officer (ACO) in July 2010 in addition to his previously assigned duties.

According to the suit, Matthews was attacked by a dog when responding to a call on May 20, 2012, while “working in the capacity of ACO.” The call involved an individual who was being attacked “by a dog resulting in severe facial injuries” and who was eventually flown by helicopter for medical attention.

“Plaintiff asserts that

immediately after exiting the vehicle at the scene of the earlier attack, Plaintiff was viciously attacked by the same dog. Plaintiff asserts that a complete lack of PPE (personal protective equipment) and inadequate training to detain the dog in a safe manner lead to a near fatal attack as documented in Plaintiff’s medical records,” the suit says.

Matthews said he received multiple wounds and injuries, “including a near fatal bite to the throat and multiple puncture wounds to the throat, hands and wrists resulting in approximately 200 stitches, three subsequent surgeries and intermittent physical and occupational therapy. …”

The injuries led to 11 percent partial disability in his left and right rotator cuffs, Matthews alleges.

“No formal training was provided to Plaintiff until approximately Mar 2011, at which time, Defendant provided an Entry Level ACO training course,” the suit alleges.

“Plaintiff asserts that in approximately Feb. 2012, Mr. (Ronnie) Long (senior ACO) made a formal request to … Gee … for PPE and additional training which was denied. Plaintiff asserts Defendant stated no funding was available.”

Matthews alleges that in February 2012, Long made a formal request to Gee “that in lieu of no PPE or adequate training, two ACOs be allowed to work together to increase personal safety. Plaintiff asserts that Defendant denied this request stating that the County found not afford to pay two ACOs on duty at the same time.”

Matthews alleges, “Defendant contributed to an unsafe working environment by not providing PPE such as eye protection, protective shields and barriers, protective clothing, face, head and hand protective gear, mace or a stun gun.”

Matthews said his workers compensation file reflects more than $230,000 in medical expenses as a result of the attack.

“Plaintiff asserts that immediately following the dog attack, Defendant terminated Plaintiff’s employment in the position of ACO as a result of his work-related injury and that as a member of a protected class termination was in violation” of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Code of Virginia, United States Code and the county’s personnel manual.

In the first suit, filed by Matthews in August, he named Lunenburg County and VACORP, the county’s insurance carrier, as defendants, along with Gee and Clark. After demurrers — or formal objections — were filed on Sept. 20 on behalf of the four defendants, a circuit court judge sustained all four demurrers, dismissing the complaints with prejudice.

Regarding the original suit against Gee and Clark, the judge wrote, “Plaintiff is granted leave to file an amended Complaint with revised allegations, including all statutory grounds, as to these defendants by December 29, 2016 … If the plaintiff does not file an amended Complaint by December 29, 2016, then the Plaintiff’s complaint shall be dismissed WITH PREJUDICE,” the judge wrote on Dec. 21.

On Dec. 28, Matthews, who is representing himself, filed a second suit — similar to the third, which was filed on Dec. 30. “Revised after new evidence,” the first page of the third suit reads.

Matthews said Gee and Clark “participated in defamation of character and invasion of privacy by placing written statements and emails into Plaintiff’s personnel file documenting non-work related and non-medical related hearsay and conversations purported to be fact.”

Matthews said Gee’s and Clark’s actions were “purposeful” in that the documentation was created to “negatively reflect on the Plaintiff’s reputation; aimed to discredit the Plaintiff’s claims of ongoing pain related to Plaintiff’s work-related injuries…”

According to the suit, Matthews returned to work on May 1, 2014, with approval of light duty restrictions, in the primary job of building and grounds technician. “Plaintiff submits the light duty accommodations were reviewed, documented and agreed upon by Defendant’s representative, Gee, and the Plaintiff, as documented in Plaintiff’s medical and personnel files.”

While working under light duty restrictions, Matthews alleges he continued to “experience pain in the right shoulder…,” which would lead to another surgery in September 2015.

Before his September surgery, Matthews said he received another performance review, one “in which Defendant stated: ‘it has cost the County a great deal of additional part-time staffing to compensate for Mr. Matthews restrictions. The County has gone above and beyond to accommodate the restrictions, but we must draw the line when it costs us more than our budget to get the job done.”

Matthews said “such documentation within a performance review was intended to harm Plaintiff’s reputation with the current employer or any further employer(s)…”

On Dec. 4, 2015, Matthews alleges, he received a certified letter from the Defendant stating he must “return to full-duty work on 7 Dec 2015 or notify Defendant of Plaintiff’s intention not to return to work and that Defendant would have to report back to work or contrarily would be considered to have resigned…”

Matthews said he reported back to work on Dec. 4, 2015. “Plaintiff asserts that he met with Defendant who restated that FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act) coverage had ended. Plaintiff asserts Defendant then stated, ‘No light duty work is available. You are terminated.’”

“Plaintiff asserts termination of employment was in fact retaliation for Defendant receiving coverage under a legitimate WC (Worker’s Compensation) claim that was costing the County ‘more than our budget to get the job done’ as documented by the Defendant…,” Matthews alleges in the suit.

The suit alleges Gee’s and Clark’s actions violated numerous federal and state laws and policies, along with the county’s personnel manual.