Former Fairhope Public Works Director Jennifer Fidler has filed a lawsuit against the City of Fairhope and Mayor Karin Wilson in her capacity as mayor and as an individual. The lawsuit stems from her 2017 firing, which also references an alleged assault made by Wilson on former Fairhope Human Resources Manager Pandora Heathcoe.
History from the lawsuit
In the lawsuit filed by Fidler’s attorney Alyce Spruell of Tuscaloosa, Fidler claims she was in a meeting with Wilson and Heathcoe and said she witnessed “Mayor Wilson take Heathcoe by the shoulders and physically shake her,” which the lawsuit refers to as “the Shaking Incident.”
On or around Jan. 11, 2017, Fidler said she had a meeting with Wilson, then Fairhope Personnel Board Chairman Lorenzo Howard and Heathcoe, where “Mayor Wilson accused Ms. Fidler of sharing information about the Shaking Incident with others.” During that meeting, Fidler said she was “confronted by Mayor Wilson and Howard regarding the Shaking Incident and told Fidler not to talk about the Shaking Incident further.”
The lawsuit claims Howard told her that “only information supportive of the Mayor should be shared, so as not to further harm the relationship between the Mayor and the Fairhope City Council.”
According to the lawsuit, Wilson “then asked Heathcoe to confirm herself that her actions on the day of the Shaking Incident were not improper,” which Heathcoe did at the time. However, Heathcoe later filed a criminal complaint against Wilson with the Fairhope Police Department regarding the incident.
Fidler said she “felt highly uncomfortable and pressured in the January meeting to have to agree with Mayor Wilson and Howard to avoid being targeted further and losing her job.”
The lawsuit states on Feb. 24, 2017, Wilson informed Fidler orally that she intended to fire her. Fidler said she requested that Wilson reconsider the decision or allow her to remain in that position until she reached retirement in less than a year.
According to the lawsuit, “Mayor Wilson told Ms. Fidler that she was not aware of her proximity to retirement and told her she would look into the matter further to determine what could be done.”
The lawsuit then states on March 9, 2017, Fidler informed Mayor Wilson in writing that she would like to continue in her position until she reached retirement, with Wilson responding to that letter by email ,and copying then City Attorney Tut Wynne, stating that the two could meet. Fidler said she took Wilson’s response to mean that she was still employed by the City but on leave of some sort.
Fidler had submitted sick leave from the City of Fairhope in late February/early March 2017.
On March 22, 2017, Fidler received a paycheck that did not reflect a retirement contribution and indicated that her remaining vacation days were used to compensate her for the prior pay period.
On March 31, 2017, Fidler sent a request to Wilson and the Fairhope City Council asking that she be retained as City Horticulturalist if she were to step down as Public Works Director.
According to the lawsuit, Wilson stated she “intended to split Ms. Fidler’s positions - Public Works Director and City Horticulturalist - into two positions.”
Fidler claims she received no further communication from Wilson regarding the Shaking Incident or any other meetings until after her official termination from the City on April 5, 2017, when Fidler was “forced to file a public records request to retrieve a copy of her personnel file.”
Upon receiving the personnel file, Fidler said she discovered a termination form that said she was terminated on or about April 5, 2017, with the reason for termination marked as “other.”
According to the lawsuit, that form states “further documentation is required for use of the ‘other’ reason, (but) the only document within the relevant time period to the April 5, 2017 termination form in her file was an undated ‘Record of Conversation’ form.”
The Record of Conversation form discusses the original Shaking Incident meeting, as well as the Jan. meeting with Wilson, Howard, Heathcoe and Fidler.
Fidler said she had never seen that document before her public records request and had no opportunity to review or respond to it. Fidler also claims she was never notified at any point she was being disciplined regarding those events or that she was being terminated.
The lawsuit states had Fidler not been terminated in April 2017 she would have been eligible for retirement on Jan. 1, 2018.
“The City and Mayor Wilson have created a culture of inequality and oppression where employees cannot raise questions or concerns without fear of losing their jobs,” the lawsuit said. “Mayor Wilson has made countless defamatory and slanderous statements regarding Ms. Fidler. For example, Mayor Wilson stated in a public forum that was being recorded and was later published online that the reason for which Ms. Fidler was fired was ‘based on something that came up...that would prevent [her] from doing [her] job successfully.’ Mayor Wilson separately wrote that the decision to fire Ms. Fidler was made because she ‘did not have another choice.’ Mayor Wilson also wrote that firing Ms. Fidler ‘had to be done to protect the integrity and interest of the City at large.’ Later, Mayor Wilson stated at a Fairhope City Council meeting in regards to Ms. Fidler’s firing: ‘You don’t know why these two city employees...if you did know you would know that I had no other choice.’”
The lawsuit alleges some time between Jan. 1, 2017, but prior to Feb. 24, 2017, Wilson “made a written offer to another individual for the position of Public Works Department Head for an amount of compensation in excess of the Plaintiff’s salary and benefits for the position.”
Fidler’s lawsuit against Wilson and the City has seven counts, which include: failure to equally compensate, civil conspiracy, breach of contract and violation of the Family Medical Leave Act, toritous interference with a business contract or agreement, defamation, slander and libel.
“Mayor Wilson acted beyond the scope of her authority as mayor when she conspired with other City employees, committee appointees and/or agents, and/or contractors to target and wrongfully terminate Ms. Fidler, to prevent her further employment by Defendant City of Fairhope, and/or to withhold benefits and payments for which she was entitled,” the lawsuit said. “Lorenzo Howard acted beyond the scope of his authority as a member of the City’s personnel board when he conspired with Mayor Wilson and/or other City employees, committee appointees and/or agents, and/or contractors to quash and prevent Ms. Fidler’s first amendment rights to ‘whistle blow,’ report or counsel fellow employees about the Mayor’s physical touching and abuse of another employee. These actions in concert have caused Ms. Fidler loss of compensation and benefits, mental anguish, emotional distress, and embarrassment for which she seeks damages herein, both compensatory and punitive.”
The Courier reached out to Mayor Wilson for a comment on the lawsuit, but was told she was out of the country at the time of publication.
Editor’s note: This story will be updated further as it develops.