GRAFTON—A lawsuit has been filed against Taylor County Sheriff Terry Austin and the Taylor County Commission.
The suit, which was filed in the Circuit Clerk’s office on June 19, on behalf of plaintiffs Joseph Barcus, Peter Shipp and James Shackelford, cites illegal employee termination as its basis.
In the documents, Barcus, Shipp and Shackelford, who were once employees of the Taylor County Sheriff’s Department, claim that they were fired illegally after Austin found out that they were campaigning for his opponent in the 2016 election.
Barcus and Shackleford were employed as Baliffs and Security Officers, while Shipp served as an Administrative Assistant, in the later part of his tenure with the department.
The complaint states that all three plaintiffs received letters on December 14, 2016, stating that as of December 31 their services were being terminated.
In the suit, Barcus stated that the candidate Austin had informed him that he should not believe rumors that he was going to be fired if Austin was elected, and that he was assured, by Austin, that his job was secure. He further elaborated that Austin told him he knew he was doing a good job in the performance of his duties.
The complaint states that after initially firing Charles Swiger, another employee, who openly campaigned for Austin’s opponent, from his position as a Security Officer, Austin reconsidered his decision.
During their conversation, Austin told Swiger he was aware that he had campaigned against him, and that he had displayed signs for his opponent on his personal vehicle, according to lawsuit documents. Austin stated that he understood that supporting the opponent was Swiger’s constitutional right, and wanted to offer him his former position.
The lawsuit states that Austin was informed of the illegality of the terminations through correspondence from the Executive Director of the West Virginia Sheriff’s Association, before the terminations became effective.
The suit alleges that the termination of employees was based on their political beliefs, and therefore violates the Plaintiffs’ constitutional and statutory rights defined in both the West Virginia State Constitution and the United States Constitution.
The suit states that Austin’s actions violated rights protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, as well as Article III sections seven, ten and eleven.
In addition, WV Code 3-9-20 states that “any employer who threatens to terminate any employee, directly or indirectly, expressed or implied, because of any vote cast by the employee, will be guilty of a misdemeanor, and upon conviction thereof, will be fined not more than $500 or incarcerated in jail for not more than six months, or in the courts discretion, both may occur.”
According to the suit, the plaintiffs state that county commissioners knew that Austin was going to terminate the employees and advised him not to go through with the firings.
The court filings also stated that Taylor County Prosecuting Attorney John Bord, acting as the commission’s legal advisor, also learned of Austin’s plan and warned against it.
The plaintiffs are suing for lost wages, the value of lost benefits, mental and emotional distress, punitive damages and costs and attorney’s fees.
The Taylor County Commission and their council refrained from comments in the on-going legal matter. Multiple attempts to reach out to the sheriff for comment were not returned prior to press deadline.