Juvenile center lawsuit moved to federal court

Employment-related issues alleged; county commissioners meet in executive session

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Rachel Bussett

By Traci Chapman
Contributing Writer

EL RENO – A wrongful termination lawsuit brought against officials associated with Canadian County’s children’s justice center has been moved to federal court.

The action filed in December 2020 was updated in late January, when seven plaintiffs who formerly worked for Gary E. Miller Canadian County Children’s Justice Center filed a second amended petition with Canadian County District Court.

Judge Bob Hughey

That filing was followed shortly thereafter by proof the petition had been served on those named as defendants in the suit – Associate Judge Bob Hughey; former facility director Daniel Kern; current CCCJC director Melanie Johnson; Cedric Mills, center assistant director; and Nacole Majors, human resources director.

The Canadian County Board of Commissioners were also named as defendants in the lawsuit. Commissioners met in executive session at their Feb. 14th meeting to discuss the lawsuit.

The civil suit was transferred Feb. 14 to the U.S. Western District Court of Oklahoma.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Rachel Bussett said late last year and in her new January court filings the lawsuit was held up in great part due to administrative issues, many of which stemmed from the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Employment-related lawsuits must first be submitted to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a process that was sidetracked for several months, Bussett said.

Twelve EEOC charges have been filed by six of the plaintiffs and one former plaintiff, according to the amended complaint.

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A NEW PLAINTIFF

The amended complaint added a new plaintiff to the lawsuit, longtime CCCJC dean of students Paul Hardaway. He joined original complainants Ronda Moss, Melissa McClain, Erin Barton, Donna Wehmuller and Cassie Goodfellow.

The addition of Hardaway’s complaints were part of a “continuing pattern” of employment-related issues alleged by the employees bringing suit against the center. While there had been a few publicly known issues at the facility – most notably those culminating in the termination of former center director Bill Alexander in 2017 – those were considered at the time by those involved with the matter as an isolated incident.

That wasn’t the case with Kern, Bussett said. Hired in March 2019, Kern allegedly made numerous inappropriate remarks and engaged in sexual harassment of several center employees, Basset 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 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.

Bussett’s clients are each seeking in excess of $75,000 in damages, she said. The suit was expected to be moved to federal court sometime in the near future now that all defendants have been served, officials said.

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