Wake Sheriff settles lawsuit with former employee over wrongful termination claim

·3 min read
Ethan Hyman/ehyman@newsobserver.com

Wake County Sheriff Gerald Baker has settled a lawsuit with a former Sheriff’s Office employee out of court, a Sheriff’s Office spokesman said Tuesday.

The Sheriff’s Office settled a lawsuit with former longtime deputy and chief of operations Richard Johnson. Johnson initially sued his former employer for over $1 million, alleging wrongful termination, in Raleigh’s U.S. District Court in January 2020, The News & Observer previously reported.

The suit was settled for $99,999 after “hours of mediated negotiations,” said office spokesman Eric Curry Tuesday. A third of that amount will go to his legal counsel, Curry said.

Johnson claimed he lost his job out of retaliation for demoting Baker’s friend, another deputy who allegedly made racist and homophobic remarks, The N&O reported.

“As stated on the record, there is no admission of liability on the part of the Sheriff but was to settle a disputed claim,” said Curry in a statement. “The decision is consistent with Sheriff’s Baker’s pledge to use resources and taxpayers’ dollars to best serve the residents of Wake County.”

Origins of lawsuit

Johnson was discharged from the Sheriff’s Office in 2018, shortly after Baker defeated former Sheriff Donnie Harrison, who held the position for 16 years.

The events described in the lawsuit occurred in 2017 under Harrison’s administration. Two deputies reported to Johnson that Lt. Teddy Patrick had allegedly made remarks during a training session that disparaged white people, gay people and Muslims and that he had singled out a deputy as gay in front of others.

Following an internal investigation, Harrison demoted Patrick to senior investigator, the lawsuits state. Baker and Patrick were close friends, according to the lawsuits.

When Baker was elected, Patrick was part of his transition team. Baker promoted him, eventualy making him second in command. He would not swear in Johnson, the lawsuit states.

Baker has argued that the lawsuit is political, The N&O reported.

“This lawsuit is a thinly veiled politically motivated effort to cast a negative light upon current Wake County Sheriff Gerald Baker,” Baker’s attorney stated in an unsuccessful argument to have Johnson’s lawsuit dismissed at the time.

Wake Sheriff faces lawsuits from former employees

The settled lawsuit is just one that the sheriff faces as he campaigns to keep his seat during the 2022 election.

In April last year, the two former Wake County deputies who initially reported Patrick to Harrison sued Baker in federal court in a separate lawsuit, alleging he fired them in retaliation for reporting his friend’s racist and homophobic comments.

The deputies, Steven Williamson and Alvis Speight, say they were fired one month into Baker’s new term as the first and only deputies dismissed, according to the lawsuit.

There are three other federal lawsuits from four employees accusing the first-term sheriff of discrimination and retaliation.

A sixth former employee and now sheriff candidate is also raising concerns about how the sheriff has treated employees, The N&O reported previously.

The most recent concern comes from former employee Cedric Herring, who says he told Baker he was running for sheriff on Feb. 8. Baker responded by cutting short Herring’s final days of work, firing his son two days later and then his future daughter-in-law, according to Herring.

In January 2022, former detention officer Latreka Jones contends she was fired in retaliation for taking family medical leave to care for her disabled son and mother, along with staying home most of January 2021 after one son, then another, tested positive for COVID-19.

Vicki Britt, a former master deputy sheriff who is white, accuses Baker, who is Black, in a 2021 lawsuit of discrimination for excluding her from the customary retiree honors and shifts in her last week of work.

News & Observer staff writer Josh Shaffer contributed to this story.