Lawsuit against tax collector alleging civil rights violations is dismissed

A lawsuit alleging civil rights violations against Lincoln County assessor/tax collector Blake Pickering has been dismissed.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court by former County employee Patricia White against Pickering and Lincoln County in August 2021, alleged unlawful retaliation, sexual harassment and gender discrimination in her former role. assistant tax assessor. White filed an amended lawsuit a month later, adding allegations of emotional distress and wrongful termination.

After the defendants filed answers and a motion to dismiss in November, White filed a second amended complaint, which dropped the county as a defendant, dropped the Civil Rights Act Title VII claims and added allegations against his former supervisor.

In an opinion and order issued Tuesday by U.S. District Court Judge Keith Starrett, White’s sexual harassment claim was dismissed with prejudice — meaning she can’t refile the same claim against the same defendant in the district court.

Pickering had argued for the dismissal on several grounds – that the sexual harassment allegations were not sufficient for legal action; that the claim for retaliation was not granted under the Fourteenth Amendment; that no complaint had been made against him in his official capacity; that he enjoyed “qualified immunity” from civil liability except in the event of a clearly established violation of the Constitution; and for “various grounds” with respect to claims under state law.

The court ruled that White had not made a claim under Section 1983 – which would give a person the right to sue state government employees acting “under the guise of state law for violation of civil rights – regarding sexual harassment and retaliation. Therefore, the other grounds were moot.

Judge Starrett ruled that the allegations did not show that the terms and conditions of her employment had been changed, only that she had complained to others that she felt uncomfortable about the alleged viewing of pornography by the accused behind locked doors in his office. Although the alleged conduct was sexual in nature, it was not the same as discrimination on the basis of sex, i.e. gender. No allegation even implied that the alleged harassment was motivated by White’s gender, the judge said.

“Because Plaintiff failed to properly frame a complaint of sexual harassment, via a hostile work environment, … particularly after three attempts,” the ruling said, “termination is appropriate.”

The retaliation suit was also dismissed because it was filed under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which does not provide for such a claim.

White’s state law claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress and wrongful termination were not addressed because the general rule of the Fifth Circuit Court is not to exercise jurisdiction over claims ongoing state law if all federal claims are denied, Starrett wrote in his order. Those claims, however, were dismissed without prejudice, meaning White can file them in a state court of competent jurisdiction, if she chooses.

Pickering did not comment on the decision. White’s attorney did not return a call seeking comment.

The original lawsuit can be read here and Judge Starrett’s opinion and order can be read in full here.

Esther L. Steinbach