Former Summerville Police Chief Bruce Owens

Former Summerville Police Chief Bruce Owens deflected accusations that a head dispatcher had been fired in 2015 because of her age. File/Jenna-Ley Harrison/Summer Journal Scene

A longtime head dispatcher for Summerville police has alleged that her job was axed by officials who valued youth over experience and labeled older employees like her “golden girls.”

Cheryl Bunting was fired in 2015 after an interview with internal affairs investigators who, she said, had fished for legitimate reasons to get rid of her. Instead, Bunting's federal discrimination lawsuit asserts that her employment was terminated only because of her age.

Bunting, 57 at the time, had worked at the Summerville Police Department for 20 years.

“Employees often ridiculed (Bunting) because of her age by inferring that she was too old to use (the town’s) computer programs,” alleged the civil rights suit filed earlier this month. “Employees also referred to (her) and other female employees over the age of 40 as ‘the golden girls.’”

Bunting’s court filing seeks back pay, lost future earnings and retirement funds, as well as damages for the embarrassment she said she suffered because police commanders wrongly characterized her departure.

A Summerville spokeswoman and police officials referred requests for comment to town attorney G.W. Parker, who said he could not discuss pending litigation. Many of the allegations centered on then-Police Chief Bruce Owens, who retired last summer at 68.

Owens called Bunting’s allegation “hogwash” and laughable. Her firing, he said, came after an internal probe ignited by a complaint. It was a performance issue, he explained, without giving details.

“Nothing can be further from the truth,” he said of the suit. “Age is not an issue. I don’t know where that’s coming from.”

Dirk Aydlette, a private attorney in Columbia representing the town in the suit, said that he knew little about the case but that courts typically side with police agencies in such matters. "I expect that deference to be applicable in this case," he said.

Bunting's lawyer, Lucy Sanders of Mount Pleasant, declined to comment beyond the court documents.

Bunting was hired as a dispatcher in August 1994 and promoted in 2000 to telecommunications supervisor, a post she held for 15 years. She garnered favorable performance ratings and was recognized by the town for her lengthy service.

She managed 13 workers.

But during that time, she alleged, police officials "inferred" to her that she should hire younger, attractive women because the chief preferred such employees.

"That’s ridiculous," Owens said. "It’s so much hogwash."

The commanders also made her feel as though she was too set in her ways to manage dispatching computer programs and changing policies, her lawsuit stated.

About three months before her firing, she alleged, a police captain told her to "put on her big-girl panties" and "accept that change happens over time."

Her interview with an internal affairs investigator in May 2015 was abrupt, she said. She thought she would be quizzed on her subordinates' handling of a fire call, but she was instead "interrogated" for an hour about her job performance. She felt intimidated, she said, as if the investigator "was trying to create a reason to terminate her employment." 

A supervisor told her that her job was safe. She filed a complaint against the investigator.

Two weeks later, the suit alleged, Owens fired her for giving "wishy-washy" answers during the interview and not handling complaints. Owens and a sergeant implied to others that her ouster was for "wrongful, illegal or unethical activity," the documents added.

A younger woman replaced her.

"But for (Bunting's) age," the filing contended, "she would not have been terminated."

Owens again deflected such account.

“We hired people for their qualifications,” he said. “It didn’t matter their age, creed, culture or anything else.”

Bunting filed a complaint of age discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which gave her a "right to sue" notice late last year. The suit was filed Feb. 1 in U.S. District Court.

The town has not filed a formal response.

"Age had nothing to do with the decision," Owens said. "I’d stand up in any court of law and swear on the Bible to that."

Reach Andrew Knapp at 843-937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.

Andrew Knapp is editor of the Quick Response Team, which covers crime, courts and breaking news. He previously worked as a reporter and copy editor at Florida Today, Newsday and Bangor (Maine) Daily News. He enjoys golf, weather and fatherhood.