|San Jacinto News-Times - Local News
Stories Added - August 2009
Copyright 2008 - Polk County Publishing Company
Former CAD employee claims she observed violations of Texas law by chief appraiser
San Jacinto News- Times - August 2009
COLDSPRING – “Violations of Texas law and preferential tax treatments and exemptions” are among allegations made about the San Jacinto County Central Appraisal District by a former employee. Until April 23, 2009 Diana Lewis, of Polk County, worked as a customer service manager for the San Jacinto County Central Appraisal District (SJCAD) under the direction of Chief Appraiser Clayton Adams. In a civil action suit fi led by Lewis recently in the United States District Court, Southern District of Texas, Houston Division Lewis claims she had to resign from her position “due to harassment from co-workers and the lack of professional management intervention to prevent or discourage confl icts.”
The confl icts started when Lewis wrote a letter to the San Jacinto County Central Appraisal District’s Board of Directors dated Jan. 21, 2009. In the letter Lewis informed the board of “numerous violations of Texas law and tax code committed by Defendant Clayton Adams and/or others within the appraisal department he oversees related to: 1) improper or insuffi cient tax notices to taxpayers; 2) preferential tax treatments and exemptions provided to members of the SJCAD Board of Directors and/or their family members or friends.” Lewis stated in the Jan. 21 letter that “in some cases, SJCAD employees have even applied special uses to these accounts and removed structures that are complete enough for the owner to claim that they lived in and fi le for a homestead exemption on.
Some taxpayers will receive preferential treatment depending on who they may know at our offi ce or who they may be in the community. Mr. Adams has had this brought to his attention but these actions are still occurring currently.” Lewis further states that she informed the board of directors of SJCAD in her Jan. 21 letter that there was poor training, rampant ineffi ciencies and waste of taxpayer money and resources taking place within the SJCAD offi ce where she was employed. “We have employees with so little to do that they surf the internet looking at things that are of their personal interest, pay their bills, talk on the phone excessively about their personal lives and sit around in groups and talk about non-work related issues while other departments are so overloaded with work that it is impossible to think that those departments will ever be caught up. Management is not structured or consistent, procedures are changed daily and in most cases it is not to the benefi t of the taxpayer,” Lewis stated in the Jan. 21 letter.
Following the submission of her Jan. 21 letter, an investigation was commenced. The former chief appraiser of Montgomery County, Texas, Jimmy Foreman was brought to SJCAD to review the SJCAD’s policies and procedures related to the disclosures made by Lewis in her letter. “Clayton Adams did everything he could to avoid being interviewed directly by Mr. Foreman and ultimately decided to criticize the investigation and its fi ndings by alleging bias against Mr. Foreman,” Lewis states. She said she has not been provided the opportunity to review Foreman’s fi ndings, but Lewis believes and is generally aware that Foreman’s investigation substantiated a number of the disclosures and allegations made in her Jan. 21 letter to the board of directors. Following these events, Lewis said she was ostracized at SJCAD by her boss and her colleagues.
In March 2009, she made a written complaint about her professional mistreatment to the SJCAD Board of Directors and stated as follows: “I am writing this letter to inform you that since January 21, 2009, I have been treated with malicious bias by the Chief Appraiser, and the majority of my colleagues. There have been a number of different events that have taken place, therefore interfering and impeding my ability to perform expected, daily responsibilities and function in the capacity for which I am employed. Additionally, other members of management are not allowing me to make the everyday decisions of my department for which I am intended to manage. Currently, there are still situations occurring that are discriminating against me and the aforementioned department. The intent of this letter is to notify you that I refuse to tolerate these working conditions.”
Despite the March 2009 advisory she provided to the board of directors regarding the mistreatment at work she was receiving following her Jan. 21 notifi cation, nothing changed, according to Lewis. The suit states that Lewis was “basically unable to perform her job duties in the offi ce environment which ensued following her January 21, 2009 letter to the board of directors.” On April 23, 2009, Lewis sent a notice of her resignation and stated as follows in writing to the board of directors: “This is my official twoweek notice of resignation effective April 23, 2009. I am leaving due to harassment from co-workers and the lack of professional management intervention to prevent or discourage the conflicts. I have endured many cruel remarks and treatment from my co-workers and Clayton Adams states that he “doesn’t know what to do to stop it”.
I have tolerate[d] belittling from my co-workers in the presence of taxpayers and any other acts of malice. I feel that this treatment has been both manipulated and encouraged by management. I do not foresee management taking measures to stop this due to the lack of reasonability incurred by administration to date. “Since my letter of complaint to the board of directors my supervisory duties have been stripped and I alone require approval of daily tasks from upper management were as before I was allowed to make these decisions independently.
This has impeded my work greatly since the interim assistant chief appraiser is unfamiliar with the procedures of my department and either holds my work to be approved at a later date or denies my requests all together. Once denied by her I have to submit again to the chief appraiser for approval. This is a very time consuming process. I regret that I am forced to resign for bringing a complaint to light that has been confirmed to be true. I have enjoyed working for the taxpayers of San Jacinto County but I can no longer suffer the stress and turmoil of this environment.” The suit claims that Lewis was constructively discharged from her job by the failure of the board of directors to stop the mistreatment she was subjected to in the wake of her Jan. 21, 2009 letter to the board.
The suit claims that Lewis has been deprived of her right to free speech. “It was Lewis’ speech that motivated Adams’ imposition of these adverse employment actions. Thus, Adams, while acting under color of state law, deprived Lewis of her right to free speech as guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution in violation of Section 1983 of Title 42 of the United States Code,” the suit states.
“Therefore Clayton Adams may be held liable in his individual capacity and is not entitled to qualified immunity from liability in this civil action.” According to the suit, SJCAD is liable because it officially adopted and promulgated the environment which led to the adverse employment actions. And because the mistreatment and adverse employment actions Lewis was subjected to were conducted by officials employed by the SJCAD and those who possessed policy-making authority. The suit is seeking damages under the Whistleblower claim and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Lewis is seeking monetary judgment in an amount equal to the difference between the wages and benefits she actually received and the wages and benefits she would have received (back pay).
In lieu of reinstatement, Lewis is seeking a monetary judgment in an amount sufficient to reimburse her for losses she is likely to suffer in the form of future pay and benefits and loss of seniority; monetary judgment in an amount sufficient to compensate her for all other damages she has suffered as a result of Adams’ violations of law described in the suit; monetary judgment in an amount sufficient to punish Adams for violating her constitutional rights to free speech and deter him from engaging in such action in the future; monetary judgment in an amount sufficient to punish the SJCAD and Adams and deter them and other counties and officials from retaliating against public employees for reporting violations of law; and issue a monetary judgment in favor of Lewis for all back pay, front pay, compensatory damages, punitive damages, exemplary damages, pre-judgment interest, post-judgment interest, attorneys’ fees and costs to which she is entitled and to award Lewis such additional relief as the court deems proper and just and to which she is entitled. Lewis is represented by Terry & Thweatt of Houston.