The former Ashland Senior Center manager is seeking $1.1 million in compensatory damages in a lawsuit filed last week against the city, its parks director and one parks commissioner over a controversial layoff in 2017.
Christine Dodson, the Ashland Parks & Recreation Senior Center manager for 10 years until her employment was terminated in August 2017, filed a tort claim notice against the city in January and followed with a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court on May 15.
The complaint alleges Dodson was excluded from having meaningful conversation about the Senior Center, had to face “false and defamatory statements” that damage her reputation, was retaliated against because of a back wage claim and was not given due process in her termination.
The city has yet to file a formal response. Attempts to reach Ashland City Attorney David Lohman for comment were unsuccessful Friday afternoon. The city has declined in the past to comment to Dodson’s notice of tort claim. It has never formally responded to Dodson’s claims.
Parks Director Michael Black and Parks Commissioner Michael Gardiner were also named in the suit. Black didn’t return a phone call seeking comment Friday. Gardiner declined to comment, saying “it’s too early to comment.”
Both have previously dismissed Dodson’s claims.
Gardiner, along with two other commissioners, easily survived a recall election in March, a citizen-initiated effort stemming largely from backlash to the Parks & Recreation Commission’s vote to lay off Dodson and reorganize the Senior Center in 2017.
The commission continues to move forward with 34 recommendations proposed by an ad hoc advisory committee — some of which include a $100,000 increase in its personnel budget and the establishment of a superintendent position.
Now, Dodson is seeking $725,000 in economic damages and $400,000 in noneconomic damages.
The suit alleges the defendants were motivated by a desire to silence Dodson’s criticism of parks officials’ shortcomings and her willingness to advocate for seniors. It also claims the defendants’ “misguided and unlawful effort” also resulted in “the public smearing of her good name and reputation,” damaging Dodson financially and emotionally.
The complaint alleges that Dodson, who was praised by her supervisor in prior reports for having “a good attitude,” for doing “an excellent job” and for turning the Senior Center into “a better place” over the years, started to face retaliation as she was fighting the city over a back wage claim of $30,000 in 2015.
Dodson fought the city in June 2015 over hours of unpaid overtime after the city informed her it had misclassified her as a salaried, exempt employee for eight years.
The lawsuit says that Black at the time asked Dodson to take a week of extra vacation time in lieu of the back wage. She declined and retained a lawyer. As the negotiation proceeded, her relationship with Black and Rachel Dials — Dodson’s immediate supervisor — started to shift, according to the lawsuit.
“(Dials) suddenly began aggressively micromanaging tasks that (Dodson) had managed independently for years, and criticizing (Dodson) in a manner that was completely inconsistent with their nearly decade-long prior relationship,” the suit reads.
Dials and Black also retaliated against Dodson, according to the suit, through prohibiting her from participating in community activities outside of normal business hours, giving her “a verbal reprimand,” and repeatedly excluding Dodson from the evaluation process of the Senior Center throughout 2017.
Through her settlement with the city for her unpaid wages, Dodson secured two additional contract rights — just case discipline regarding her performance and meaningful participation in Senior Center changes. Both rights, the lawsuit claims, were violated.
The suit claims that Black “publicly berated” Dodson at public meetings and brainstormed ideas about Senior Center without her, while simultaneously dismissing her effort to participate by refusing to discuss her ideas or meet with her on multiple occasions.
Dodson also claims that Gardiner became “hostile” and “upset” toward her a number of times when she attempted to advocate for seniors’ needs. She also claims that his statement of justification during the recall election was “entirely false and were designed specially to discredit” her reputation.
The suit argues that the city, in response to a BOLI claim from a part-time Senior Center employee, said Dodson was “resistant to change,” although she was never counseled or reprimanded. According to the court filings, Lohman allegedly called Dodson a “trouble maker” and a “rabble rouser” who was “putting out all kinds of misinformation” in a meeting with a citizen. Dodson claims that those statements demonstrate that she was fired without just cause, instead of being laid off.
Dodson claims in her lawsuit that the city “repeatedly encouraged” her to apply for the new superintendent position but refused to consider her in an email on May 7.
The city has 60 days to file a formal response to Dodson’s claims.
—Reach reporter Tran Nguyen at 541-776-4485 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on twitter @nguyenntrann.