Trial slated for lawsuit against JFS

Cary Ashby • Oct 29, 2015 at 12:19 PM

A former employee of the county welfare agency is suing the department, its former and current top administrators and county commissioners. Visiting Common Pleas Judge Judith Cross has scheduled a July 15, 2008 jury trial.

Nichole "Nicki" Baker, who was fired Aug. 14, is accusing the Huron County Department of Job and Family Services (HCDJFS) of sexual discrimination, creating a hostile work environment, negligent supervision, defamation and inflicting emotional distress.

Baker's attorney, Marilyn Widman, "should be prepared to state (her) financial settlement demand," at a June 23, 2008 pretrial conference, Cross wrote in court documents.

HCDJFS hired Baker on Jan. 12, 2004 as a file clerk. She was an agency screener starting March 7, 2005. Baker was responsible for initial contacts with a complainant and gathering information from the person before turning it over to a case worker.

Last month, HCDJFS fired Baker, based on allegations she harassed a client, used profanity repeatedly with the same woman and accessed pornography using the agency computer. The lawsuit, filed April 17, indicates the client is an estranged relative of Baker's by marriage.

Beginning in October 2004, Baker applied for five "lateral transfers and/or promotional opportunities" and was rejected each time. Widman, Baker's attorney, wrote that former HCDJFS Director Erich Dumbeck approved "the final selected candidates." Baker filed a formal written complaint in October 2006, accusing the agency's board of sexual harassment and creating a hostile work environment.

Baker, in the lawsuit, accuses Dumbeck of telephone harassment and making "unwelcome physical contact ... beginning within two months of (Baker) starting work and continuing until at least January 2007."

Dumbeck, the social services supervisor when Baker was hired, is further accused of making an "unwelcome advance toward" Baker at a Norwalk bar March 17, 2004.

In July 2004, a HCDJFS employee sent an anonymous letter to board, accusing Dumbeck of "having an affair with an employee of this agency," Widman wrote. She quoted the person as saying the affair wasn't discrete "and is causing many problems."

Dumbeck is married and Baker was involved in an exclusive relationship with someone else at the time, Widman wrote.

Regarding the suspected misuse of Baker's computer, HCDJFS Assistant Director Bonnie Richards had the chief inspector's office of the state welfare agency monitor Baker's computer from June 8 through 22. Widman wrote that Baker was accused of "excessive chat room activity during work hours," noting that Richards "had never" made a similar request to the state about Internet usage by other HCDJFS employees.

Richards reportedly didn't notify Baker "at any time in June or July 2007" about her suspicions of Baker misusing the Internet, Widman wrote.

Baker filed a complaint Aug. 15 with the Huron County Sheriff's Office, accusing someone of tampering with her work computer. Detective Sgt. Dane Howard was assigned the case.

"But there was no investigation conducted at the time," Howard said Wednesday, because his supervisors told him "it was an employee relation problem, not a criminal one."

Widman, in mid-August, said Baker "absolutely, positively did not do what she is accused of doing with her computer." She added that "any investigation of the underlying facts will quickly show that the termination is not supported, that the county misused its equipment in setting Ms. Baker up with charges."

HCDJFS Interim Director Lowell Etzler had accused the former employee of using an agency computer to access pornography when Baker was fired. Etzler declined to comment Wednesday.

Baker's attorney said HCDJFS officials had printouts of pornography taken from a computer screen during her client's disciplinary hearing. Widman, who wasn't at the Aug. 1 meeting, stressed it's difficult to tell if the printouts came from Baker's computer or someone else's.

"I don't comment on pending lawsuits," Huron County Commissioner Mike Adelman said.

Huron County Assistant Prosecutor Daivia Kasper, the commissioners' legal counsel, was on vacation this week and couldn't be reached for comment.

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