S.C. Department of Mental Health employees allege discrimination

The South Carolina Department of Mental Health, one of the state's largest agencies, finds itself the target of a rash of discrimination complaints in recent years from its own employees.

COLUMBIA — A newly hired S.C. Department of Mental Health aide said one of her male coworkers groped her at their Columbia office, tried to stick his finger in her mouth and offered to pay her for oral sex or to watch her have sex with another woman.

After she went to her boss with her complaints against the coworker, who had worked there for 20 years, she was reassigned as punishment for “causing trouble” for a popular employee, the female employee alleges in a federal lawsuit.

The dispute is one of a rash of complaints in recent years lodged by employees against the Mental Health Department for workplace issues ranging from sexual harassment to racial discrimination.

Since 2015, the department has charged taxpayers more than $315,000 in legal costs and paid losses from employment discrimination cases, state records show.

That’s far more than any other S.C. agency has paid handling similar cases, according to a Post and Courier analysis of records from the State Insurance Reserve Fund.

The Mental Health Department is the state’s fifth-largest agency with roughly 4,600 full-time employees. A little more than half of its $425 million budget is covered by S.C. taxpayers, with other funding from clinical fees, grants and other sources.

The agency downplayed its legal costs.

"The numbers don’t shock me," spokesman Mark Binkley said. "I’d be happy to take a look at the experiences of other agencies with over 4,000 employees like we have. We have remarkably little litigation for as large as we are."

The Post and Courier requested an interview with Director John Magill on Tuesday, but an assistant said he was out of the office all week.

Overall, South Carolina's more than 100 agencies have charged taxpayers nearly $2 million since 2015 in legal expenses for discrimination cases. Just under a fifth of those costs have come from the Mental Health Department. 

With the agency’s dozens of campuses across the state, the complaints aren’t confined to a single workplace or set of managers.

Binkley denied that the complaints are a signal of systemic issues within the agency. "We have no real pattern here," he said. 

Among the agency's seven settlements paid to employees since 2015, all but two were for less than $20,000, Binkley said. 

"From my perspective as a lawyer, that is not concerning at all," he said.

Still, taken together, the complaints show nurses, aides and maintenance workers from Richland to Berkeley counties accusing superiors of failing to address serious charges of racism, harassment and unequal pay.

Among the recent complaints:

  • A black woman who worked in human resources alleges in a July lawsuit that an African-American assistant director of human resources denied her a promotion because the woman "wore her hair naturally.” The agency denied this in court papers.
  • A black nursing supervisor at Columbia’s C.M. Tucker Nursing Care Center in 2014 said a white colleague harassed her, defaced a photo of President Barack Obama that the woman kept at her desk and called Obama a “son of a bitch,” whom “she hated.” The agency denied the allegations. The state paid the woman a $17,000 settlement in 2015.
  • Four black maintenance workers in two separate cases between 2012 and 2015 accused the agency of a “pattern of disparate treatment” among black workers and a “systematic regime of racially based disparate pay.” The state paid $30,000 in settlements from the two cases.

An internal salary study did find a pay disparity for the agency's black maintenance workers, Binkley said. The disparity has since been corrected, he said, with those workers receiving salary increases since 2015.

Workplace discrimination is one of the most serious complaints an employer can face, with federal laws designed to protect women and minorities. 

Department of Mental Health supervisors are required to complete online training upon taking the job, Binkley said, which details the agency's anti-harassment policies.

To be sure, the department isn’t alone in facing discrimination complaints — other S.C. agencies have had their own workplace issues. Jay Babb, a Columbia attorney, said his law firm handles at least a dozen employment disputes involving state agencies every year.

"As a taxpayer myself, the concern I have is that these matters — any systemic issues — are they being dealt with as they should be to prevent future issues arising?" Babb said.

In the sexual harassment case, the man denied wrongdoing but he was fired in July 2016 after an investigation, he said in a countersuit filed last year. 

If workplace issues aren’t handled quickly by managers, the cases end up in court and taxpayers are left to foot the legal costs, said Bryn Sarvis, a lawyer who has handled discrimination cases.

“What most people want is to have it stopped — they’re not looking for a payday,” Sarvis said. “If (managers) would take the concern seriously from the beginning, it would certainly be more cost effective."

The majority of the more than 230 formal employee complaints within the Department of Mental Health since 2015 were handled internally, Binkley said. 

Follow Joseph Cranney on Twitter @joey_cranney.

Joseph Cranney is a reporter based in Columbia, covering state and local government. He previously covered government and sports for newspapers in Florida and Pennsylvania.