Transylvania County administration building in Brevard.

Renee Crocker, the former Child Protective Services supervisor who has recently sued Transylvania County officials for contempt of court for not giving her job back, will reject the county’s offer to rehire her with more than $160,000 in back pay, her lawyer told Carolina Public Press on Monday.

The county’s offer is unacceptable, according to attorney Don Barton of Brevard, who has represented Crocker in more than two years of litigation with the county.

After Barton filed the contempt complaint against them on Dec. 1, Transylvania County commissioners approved a budget amendment last week to rehire Crocker, whom a previous Department of Social Services director fired in October 2015, with more than $160,000 in back pay and benefits.

Barton said he plans to continue legal action against the county in pursuit of an acceptable offer. One catch is that Barton says the monetary offer is too low. But Crocker’s legal team is also balking at plans to rehire her in a different position from the powerful supervisory one she held until 2015.

County Manager Jaime Laughter presented the budget amendment to county commissioners during a meeting on Dec. 11 to cover the cost of paying Crocker for what the county determined was her lost salary and benefits, totaling $163,216.

Commissioners agreed to rehire her on Feb. 15, 2018. However, because her previous position as Child Protective Services supervisor has already been filled, the county is “currently making arrangements to be capable of complying with the requirement to re-employ,” according to a memo that Laughter addressed to commissioners.

Barton says not hiring Crocker back in her role as CPS supervisor is a violation of the May 2016 Office of Administrative Hearings ruling in the case.

As a result, Barton said Crocker won’t return to work on Feb. 15 unless she is being given back her job as CPS supervisor.

The actual wording of Administrative Law Judge David Sutton’s ruling said Crocker should be “reinstated to her position of Social Work Supervisor at the same pay grade she had while in that position.” Crocker and her attorney are interpreting that to mean the specific supervisory position she held previously. But with the judge’s words naming a more general category of job than supervising the Child Protective Services division, the county may argue it has more leeway.

Barton also said the amount the county is willing to pay Crocker “won’t come close” to what he believes she is owed.

Crocker’s termination more than two years ago came after she admitted contacting a judge she had a professional relationship with about a custody dispute in which she had a personal stake.

Crocker appealed that decision through the state Office of Administrative Hearings, where Sutton ruled that the firing was an improperly excessive punishment, given Crocker’s many years on the job. Particularly decisive in Sutton’s decision was then-DSS director Tracy Jones’ testimony Crocker’s conduct with the judge was the only consideration. Jones she didn’t review other positive or negative factors, including a scathing 2015 state review of Crocker’s division.

The county appealed Sutton’s ruling to the state Court of Appeals, where a three-judge panel upheld the lower court’s decision. The county then filed a petition for discretionary review with the North Carolina Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court denied that petition on Nov. 1, but the county still refused to reinstate Crocker in any capacity, which led to the contempt complaint.

Ex parte communication

Crocker was fired after she reached out to Judge Emily Cowan to ask about the legality of taking a child out of state who was at the center of a custody dispute between Crocker’s daughter’s boyfriend, Marquis Swarn, a convicted felon with a lengthy history of arrests, and Lauren Brown, a Brevard woman. Cowan later recused herself from hearing motions in the case between Swan and Brown, over which she was presiding, but didn’t specify her reasons for the recusal.

Jones argued that Crocker’s contact with the judge, also known as an ex parte communication, was a violation of the county’s personnel policy and terminated Crocker.

Crocker also filed a federal defamation and libel suit against Sandra Brown, Lauren’s mother, after Sandra created social media pages that were critical of Crocker and documented the details of the custody dispute. Crocker dropped that suit after the Office of Administrative Hearings ruling that ordered the county to rehire her.

Sandra Brown sent an email to Laughter and Daryl Renfroe, the new Transylvania County DSS director, on Thursday, asking them to meet about the case.

“In light of the county’s decision to not fight the contempt of court issue, I am requesting a detailed plan of how DSS is planning to safeguard our continued court case that is still ongoing, how you plan to deter Crocker’s continued vendetta against our family through the use of her position, and how our family can be assured of due process without her undermining our case,” Brown wrote. “I am available for a conference call to discuss or we can ask Health & Human Services to ask for a plan for us.”

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Michael Gebelein was an investigative reporter with Carolina Public Press. To contact Carolina Public Press, email or call 828-774-5290.

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