Children’s center lawsuit begins forward momentum again

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Judge Bob Hughey

By Traci Chapman
Contributing Writer

A civil lawsuit brought against current and former officials with Canadian County’s children’s justice center that has been in limbo for several months is once again heating up, court records show.

The wrongful termination action, filed in December 2020 on behalf of five individuals, was brought against officials at Gary E. Miller Canadian County Children’s Justice Center.

Those named as defendants in the suit include Special Judge Bob Hughey – who oversees the center and juvenile bureau as its judicial head; former facility director Daniel Kern; Melanie Johnson and Cedric Mills, current center administrators; and Nacole Majors, CCCJC human resources director.

Canadian County Board of County Commissioners also is named in the suit, standard procedure when bringing an action against a county entity.

While the initial petition was filed in Canadian County District Court in December 2020, not much transpired in intervening months – and none of the named defendants have yet been served as of Jan. 4.

That changed in September, when attorney Rachel Bussett filed a motion seeking to amend the petition filed in the case, a request approved by District Judge Paul Hesse, who also extended the time to serve the defendants until Jan. 15, 2022.

Rachel Bussett

Bussett said last week there were several factors that delayed the action – issues related to the novel coronavirus pandemic, which has caused havoc since it first arrived in Oklahoma in March 2020, including at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Personnel-related matters, such as wrongful discharge and other issues alleged by the five plaintiffs in the suit, must first go through an administrative process with the EEOC. Because COVID-19 caused delays there, it also put the brakes – temporarily – on the lawsuit filed on those individuals’ behalf, Bussett said.

The amended complaint would add a sixth former employee to the lawsuit – Paul Hardaway, the center’s longtime dean of students, who Bussett contends was constructively discharged during the summer of 2021.

Original plaintiffs in the civil action were Ronda Moss, Melissa McClain, Erin Barton, Donna Wehmuller and Cassie Goodfellow.

Kern 2019 Allegations
Chief among the allegations involved in the lawsuit were purported actions and comments of former CCCJC director Dan Kern, Bussett said.

“Everything started with the former director – Dan Kern,” Bussett said. “Mr. Kern began engaging in inappropriate and sexual humor and innuendo and escalated to him making comments about the children.”

Those comments allegedly included slurs made about children receiving services at the center, as well as sexual comments directed to staff members, Bussett said.

The lawsuit alleges employees reported Kern’s remarks and behavior to Hughey in September 2019 and to other county officials, with no action being taken. Bussett said last week no action against Kern was taken until an Oklahoma City media outlet reported on the matter.

That report was released after Kern was allegedly caught on tape yelling at Barton, who had reported inappropriate sexual comments made by the then-director.

Kern, who was hired in March 2019, left the center in November 2019, officials said. Documents released at that time showed he was placed on suspension without pay due to issues with his “conduct.” Court documents indicated Kern was fired.

Moss was hired by CCCJC in 2015 and promoted to assistant director in 2018, while also continuing as center human resources director. She was fired in October 2019. McClain, a detention officer, was demoted in October 2019.

Wehmuller and another individual, Robert Wayne Fletcher, also alleged discrimination. Fletcher, an original named plaintiff, was no longer a party to the action as of press time, after Bussett’s office requested it be allowed to withdraw as his counsel.

Alleged Ongoing Issues
Wehmuller resigned at the end of the 2021 school year due to ongoing issues, Bussett said. Longfellow was reportedly fired in January for reporting issues at the center, while Hardaway became involved as a plaintiff after the summer events surrounding his employment, Bussett said.

Hardaway joined the suit after allegedly being told his position as dean of students was being phased out and he would not be considered for the center’s alternative school principal post, which became vacant upon the retirement of former Mustang educator Neil Womack.

Bussett’s clients are each seeking in excess of $75,000 in damages, she said. After they obtain service on the named defendants in January, she said she anticipated the lawsuit would be moved to federal court.

“The biggest thing that everybody wants is change at the center,” Bussett said. “We have this beautiful, state-of-the-art facility…but we’re not taking care of our employees, we’re not following the law, we now have a pattern of hiring people into the facility that demonstrates bad judgment and that’s really concerning.”

Center and other county officials said last week they could not comment on personnel matters or potential pending litigation.