Lawsuit filed against mayor and city includes alleged biasedness in independent counsel’s report 

Published 7:02 pm Monday, February 17, 2020

A longtime employee who previously came forward about a grievance she filed against the city’s mayor has now filed a lawsuit against him and the City of Danville. The lawsuit also details issues with the results of an independent report filed by outside counsel who was hired by the city to investigate multiple complaints. 

Joyce Collins, who is represented by attorney Bill Erwin, filed suit Wednesday in Boyle Circuit Court against Mayor Mike Perros and the City of Danville, based on conditions of KRS 344.040, which is the Kentucky Civil Rights Statute. 

The suit 

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According to the suit, Collins says she has been “subjected to severe and pervasive racial harassment by the City of Danville” creating a hostile and abusive environment. 

Collins has been with the city for more than 11 years as an administrative assistant. 

The suit alleges that Mayor Perros referred to her as a “black Shirley Temple” at city hall in front of others; referenced the color of her skin in a derogatory manner and that she wears wigs, and repeated what he said to others; and referred to her and others as his “cafeteria girls.” 

The suit says the statement concerning Collins wearing wigs “was in reference to the fact that Plaintiff had lost her hair as a result of cancer treatment.” 

The suit details that Collins filed a grievance with the city, which former City Manager Ron Scott investigated, and alleges he “failed to take action satisfactory” to her, and that the city commission also failed to take any action. “However, when a caucasion employee filed a grievance against (Perros) … subsequent to Plaintiff’s grievance, … the city commission retained counsel, Barbara Kris” to conduct an investigation. 

The suit says the investigation included reevaluating the grievance made by Collins and others, and that the city commission “believed and acted in a different manner as a result of the grievance filed by the caucasion employee.” 

It also alleges that Kriz’s December 2019 report — which concluded that there is insufficient evidence that employees have been discriminated against based on their race or gender — was “incomplete, biased and completely self-serving.” It says Kriz failed to include the Shirley Temple comment, which Collins claims was clearly communicated during her interview. 

“Barbara Kriz further advised employees … that she had known (Perros) for most of her life and that the statements made (by him) were, ‘Just Mike being Mike,’ and that the actions of the mayor were not actionable,” the suit says. “Based on her findings, the city commission took no action.” 

The suit says the city commission, who retained and paid for the services of Kriz, knew or should have known of the bias of Kriz. 

The suit also alleges that city commissioners have individually approached Collins after she filed the grievance, effecting her status as an employee and causing embarrassment and humiliation, and two instances were detailed:  

  • “In one instance, Commissioner (J.H.) Atkins approached Plaintiff in her office. He brought with him two persons. He advised Plaintiff he had come to her office to ‘give her a hug.’ He advised that he had brought witnesses with him to the event. This action further embarrassed Plaintiff and brought attention to her position and the fact that her grievances had not resulted in any action by the city commission.”
  • “In a second instance, that occurred in February of 2020, Commissioner Atkins and Commissioner (Denise) Terry called Plaintiff into Police Chief Tony Gray’s office to interrogate her regarding a citizen complaint. The commissioners engaged in this harassing behavior without advising or consulting the city manager.” 

The suit says Collins “has been forced to work in an environment where she is shunned and ridiculed by other employees. She faces consistent harassment from city commissioners,” and should result in an award of punitive damages. 

Collins’ attorney, Erwin, said, “We have not yet determined a number. That is something the court will determine based on the evidence that continues to accumulate.” He says this is a case “where the harassment and environment continues through this date. It partially depends on what action the city is going to take to change the hostile work environment that obviously exists and has been condoned. The ultimate number should be one that will deter the city from treating its employees in this manner.” 

The report 

Collins is not the first employee to claim Attorney Kriz was not an unbiased third party to serve as investigator to look into the complaints. When others reached out to The Advocate-Messenger after the report was made public and the commission unanimously passed a resolution in December accepting the findings, the city was contacted for a comment and asked why it didn’t disclose Kriz knew the mayor, and was familiar to other city officials.

Barbara A. Kriz began her career as an assistant attorney general and has practiced law for 30 years, with more than 20 years of experience in employment law. She is originally from this area, but has not lived in Danville since 1978. Her investigative report is thorough and well written and speaks for itself,” wrote City Attorney Stephen Dexter in an email. 

Kriz was also contacted for comment. She first declined, due to client-attorney privilege, but when asked about her relationship with the mayor, said, “We went to the same high school, he was a year ahead of me. By no means were we close, personal friends.” 

She denied making the statement to any employee of “that’s Mike being Mike.” 

“I would not have known ‘that’s Mike.’ I have had no contact with Mayor Perros since 1978 …” when she says she moved out of Danville. She said she has had no contact with any others on the commission since then, either. 

Kriz was retained by the city to investigate grievances and complaints filed by Collins and another longtime employee, Erica Engle — who is the caucasian employee referenced in the lawsuit. She filed a grievance against Perros based on comments she claimed he has made about her, as well as one against former City Manager Scott for failing to take action when he was told about them.  

Collins and Engle didn’t come forward about their complaints against Mayor Perros until an incident was covered by the A-M at Boyle County Fiscal Court, where a joke the mayor made about a female presenter not wearing socks got out of control after a magistrate chose to comment on her body.

In her report, Attorney Kriz wrote, “Viewed in isolation, Mayor Perros’ comments regarding Joyce Collins, Erica Engle and Jennifer Kirchner (who was presenting at fiscal court) were not sufficiently severe and/or pervasive to create a sexually or racially hostile work environment.” 

Kriz then adds, “Viewed in the context of a female staff who feel unappreciated, under-valued, under-utilized and under-paid, those comments have served to accentuate those feelings.” 

According to the report, materials Kriz used in her investigation included documents related to the grievances and ethics complaint; the city’s policy on harassment/discrimination, grievance policies and code of ethics; minutes and recordings from city commission meetings and Board of Ethics; multiple articles from the A-M; and an email from City Manager Scott to the mayor and city commission from resident Randy Graham. 

As far as Collins’ issue with how her grievance was handled, Kriz’s report said she could find no corroborating evidence that Collins’ “grievance was ‘swept under the rug.’” 

Kriz gives details on how Collins had applied for the city clerk position but was not hired. In a previous interview, Collins said she didn’t understand why this was included. “That has nothing to do with any of this,” she said. 

Collins said it was not included that the commission deemed Perros was not acting as mayor when he made comments to her while at city hall, referring to the rationale given by the commission for not requiring a public apology from the mayor, which Collins eventually requested. 

Collins said she feels Scott and the commission did nothing about her concerns over her grievance, until Engle came forward. She thinks the report is biased and attempts to paint her, as well as Engle, in a negative light. 

A paragraph about a new employee who was interviewed by Kriz begins with the fact that she “has never filed a grievance.” After detailing Engle’s situation over her grievances, Kriz writes, “ … the city does have a grievance policy and Erica is clearly aware of that policy, as she has exercised it on multiple occasions.” 

In an interview, Engle said the grievances in question are the first ones she’s filed in 22 years of working for the city. “That’s one of the huge things that really hurt. From the report, it appears that I’m a trouble-maker and filed grievance after grievance.” 

Collins also pointed to several other off-topic details that were included in the report about other employees, who were not involved in the grievances. She believes all of these issues were brought up to deflect from the core of the investigation, which was how the city handled the grievances; “or didn’t handle them,” she said. 

New City Manager David Milliron was asked recently for his reaction to the report’s contents. “I have no reaction to that. It’s in the past.” As far as the lawsuit, Milliron said it would be “inappropriate for a city manager to comment on a legal suit against the city.” 

Coming up: Milliron discusses some of his initiatives set in place in order to work on employee morale.