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Nash nonprofit faces age discrimination suit

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NASHVILLE — Three women, including a local elected official, claim age and gender discrimination in a lawsuit filed against a regional nonprofit that operates in Nash, Edgecombe and Wilson counties.

A recent court filing claims Nash-Edgecombe Economic Development demoted Evelyn Powell — an Edgecombe County commissioner — and fired Gloria Wilson and Phyllis Rodgers.

In the civil complaint, Wilson, 63, director of family development; Phyllis Rodgers, 43, administrative assistant; and Powell, 60, education manager claim that NEED Executive Director Ginell Rogers pushed them out or down because of their age.

Formed in 1964 to provide grants and services to low income families in Nash, Edgecombe and Wilson counties, NEED controls $10 million annually in the administration of Head Start and Community Development Block Grant programs in the three counties.

The organization is going through a rough patch, having fallen out of compliance with Head Start and experiencing a near-complete turnover of its board of directors including longtime Chairman James Collins, who stepped down earlier this year and is named as a defendant in the lawsuit.

Wilson County Board of Commissioners Vice Chairman Leslie Atkinson replaced Collins as NEED chairman earlier this year. Atkinson didn’t return voice messages seeking comment in time for this story.

The lawsuit claims NEED suspended Powell without pay for six months over an incident in which a teacher allegedly pinched a student. Powell wasn’t on site when the incident occurred. Rogers said Powell failed to train teachers about abuse and so demoted Powell to a teacher’s assistant, which effectively served as termination since the change from director to teacher’s assistant meant an annual loss of $17,000.

Powell also claims Rogers slandered her name and character by accusing her of manufacturing fake CPR certification cards.

Powell appealed to NEED’s personnel and executive committees, which found no grounds for termination. A mediator brought in by the organization’s board of directors agreed with Powell, and she returned to work in November 2018.

Powell had a new job description that the board of directors didn’t approve. The board must approve any job description changes, according to a NEED policy cited in the lawsuit.

And when Powell returned to work, she had been moved to a smaller office on the far end of the building, the suit contends.

“When Evelyn Powell returned to work on Nov. 5, 2018, the janitor directed her to the closet where she found her personal items thrown inside. The food in the refrigerator was molded and multiple rodents and maggots were found in the refrigerator,” according to item 299 of the 394-item lawsuit.

Maintenance staffers were reprimanded for trying to help Powell move furniture from storage to her new office. The situation caused Powell to seek medical treatment and a doctor diagnosed her with anxiety and depression, the lawsuit claims.

Wilson, who worked at NEED for two dozen years, and Phyllis Rodgers were fired in April 2018 with Rogers citing a conflict of interest with Motivator Enterprise, a company owned by Wilson’s husband and operated by Rodgers’ husband.

Employees are to receive a written reprimand for first violations of the conflict of interest policy, according to NEED’s employment rules.

Rogers approved the contracts with Motivator and the N.C. Employment Security Commission determined NEED didn’t have sufficient reason to fire Wilson and Rodgers.

The lawsuit claims Rogers used the conflict charge as a pretext for age and gender discrimination.

Hired by NEED in 2017, Rogers made her plans clear in a Rocky Mount Telegram article in which she said her goal is to have a younger presence at NEED because it’s difficult for older generations adapt to change, according to the lawsuit.

Prior to firing her, Rogers tried to reduce Wilson’s pay while at the same time increasing younger employees’ salaries by the same amount, the suit contends.

“During Ginell Rogers’ first four-month tenure with NEED, she discharged and suspended female employees and provided preferential treatment to male employees,” the lawsuit states.

The suit claims Rogers called for Wilson’s salary be decreased by $6,000 with the money going to younger employees while Wilson took bereavement leave due to her brother’s death.

When her employment was terminated in April 2018, Wilson experienced chest pains and went to a hospital where a doctor diagnosed her with anxiety and depression, according to the lawsuit.

The civil rights complaint requests relief based on eight claims: Wrongful discharge, age discrimination, gender discrimination, hostile workplace environment, retaliation, negligence, slander and inflicting emotional distress.

Rogers sits on the board of directors for the Wilson County Partnership for Children.

The lawsuit also names former NEED Head Start Director Elton Powell as a defendant.

Plaintiffs asked for the case to remain in Nash County, a jury trial and more than $25,000 in damages for each plaintiff. Wilson, Rodgers and Powell are represented by Raleigh attorney Reginald Goodson, who didn’t return Thursday voicemail messages in time for this story.

Lawyers Katherine Barber-Jones and Katie Weaver Hartzog with Raleigh-based Cranfill, Sumner and Hartzog represent NEED and all the defendants.

“We will be responding in due course to the allegations and intend to zealously defend the suit,” Hartzog said. “Unfortunately, we can’t comment further on ongoing litigation at this time.”

Hartzog filed a motion last week to move the case from Nash County Superior Court to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina in Greenville.

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