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Discrimination lawsuit again in county public affairs position
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Rockdale County is facing a federal lawsuit from former county public affairs director Erica Fatima who is alleging a hostile working environment and discrimination against blacks, less than two years after the county was sued by a former public affairs employee alleging discrimination against whites.

Fatima was selected as director in April 2010 amid controversy and resigned in October 2011. In January 2012, she filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which decided by February 2013 that it did not find a violation. In May 2013, Fatima filed a federal lawsuit against the Board of Commissioners, Chairman Richard Oden, Commissioner Oz Nesbitt and Commissioner JaNice Van Ness.

In her initial complaint, Fatima alleged "forced, draconian, disproportionate budget cuts targeted to my department to protect political positions and reinforce racial retaliation."

The county responded in its legal filings that "Due to budget shortfalls there were numerous positions eliminated in several departments, not just the Plaintiff's department. Plaintiff participated in the decision to reduce staff within her department."

In 2010 budget cuts reduced two positions in the public affairs staff, leaving two full-time employees - Fatima and the Channel 23 operator. One of the public affairs employees who had been cut, then-Deputy Director Holly LaFontaine, who is white, had initiated an EEOC complaint and eventually brought an unsuccessful federal lawsuit alleging racial discrimination in not being selected for the director position.

Fatima alleged Van Ness made disparaging remarks about Fatima's performance to her, to vendors and in public meetings.

Van Ness responded in a written statement, "The allegations in the suit are unfounded and I expect that Ms. Fatima's claims will be unsubstantiated in a court of law." She went on to say that she had advocated for fairness in the hiring process. "Our HR department did not check (Fatima's) references in advance and I asked questions regarding the references she listed... At no time, did I subject Ms. Fatima to a hostile work environment." She wrote that she had little contact with Fatima and that Oden was the day-to-day administrator.

Fatima alleged Van Ness made disparaging remarks about lower income families moving from DeKalb to Rockdale regarding the Neighborhood Stabilization Program.

In an April 15, 2011 incident report that Fatima wrote about that conversation, reportedly at Oden's request, she reported that Van Ness said she didn't want to advertise "another welfare program in Rockdale County" and that the program would bring unwanted people from DeKalb into Rockdale if it was advertised in DeKalb.

Van Ness said, regarding the NSP program, at the time she had less understanding of what the program was. Van Ness said she had had a conversation with billboard advertising representatives before talking with Fatima about the NSP advertising and had learned the company had billboards in Rockdale. Van Ness said she was concerned about the price and location of billboards. She said she also advocated promoting NSP among Rockdale's law enforcement, firefighters and other public servants.

In April and May of 2011, Fatima reportedly indicated to Oden and Chief of Staff Greg Pridgeon that she would file a racial discrimination and hostile workplace claim against Van Ness.

"I was told in no uncertain terms I was not permitted to submit the claims," because it might threaten the re-elections of Oden and Nesbitt, Fatima wrote in her complaint.

Fatima further alleged that in September 13, 2011, Oden, Nesbitt, Pridgeon, Finance Director Roselyn Miller and herself were called to "an off-campus meeting that was in direct violation of the sunshine laws; the CEO and Post I Commissioner, Chief of Staff and Finance Director met to determine the millage rate and budget." The group allegedly met at the Omega Psi Phi World Headquarters on 3951 Snapfinger Parkway, Decatur.

In its legal response, the county denied the allegations of illegal activity.

It also pointed out that neither Van Ness nor Nesbitt were Fatima's supervisors and did not have the ability to fire her.

During talks for the 2012 budget requests, Fatima's request for an increase restoring the previously cut public affairs positions was denied.

The case is still proceeding in US District Court Northern Georgia Atlanta Division before Judge Clayton Scofield, III, the same judge who heard the LaFontaine case.