Lawyer seeks dismissal of case against coroner

LISBON – Civil lawsuits filed by two former employees of County Coroner Dr. William Graham were addressed in Common Pleas Court Friday by visiting Judge Richard David Reinbold Jr.

First Reinbold addressed the case filed by Brian K. Fullum, who claims issues with his former employer dealing with retaliation, failure to pay overtime compensation and a hostile work environment. Because Fullum has filed an appeal in a similar case, Reinbold decided to place the current case on hold until a decision is made by the Seventh District Court of Appeals.

In the second case, former administrative assistant Susan D. Bennett is alleging, among other things, illegal retaliation by Graham after she brought up allegations of professional misconduct by him.

The attorney for Graham, James Climer of Cleveland, argued the case brought by Bennett should be thrown out. Among other things Climer contends Bennett is not a medical professional and did not seek the advice of a medical expert when she accused Graham of changing an autopsy report.

Her attorney, Fred M. Bean of South Euclid, notes Bennett did not have to be a medical expert, only reasonably believe her accusations to be true. He noted she talked to firefighters and others involved in the cases and felt a mistake had been made.

Other allegations Bennett made against the coroner included a loaded gun, which she said was kept in Graham’s office, but was later located in the evidence locker at the Salem Police Department. She also claimed coroner’s investigators were not showing up for work, something Climer said she did not understand because those employees work a half day and then are on call throughout the day and night.

Bennett claims she was denied access to her computer after making allegations, a claim Bean said Graham admitted to during a deposition taken from him in regards to the case.

Climer questioned whether Bennett followed the proper chain of command in lodging her concerns about the coroner’s office. After telling Graham about her concerns, she reportedly next took them before the Columbiana County commissioners. That was before she lodged a written complaint.

Bean argued the county commissioners have no authority over the coroner, except in setting his budget, so she did not skip over a step in the process.

Bennett has also claimed her hours were cut from 32 per week to 10 per week after she lodged her complaints, which Bean said is in retaliation. Climer argued there were budget cuts anticipated in the coroner’s office, and it was determined better to cut the hours of an administrative assistant than the hours of investigators.

However, Bean noted while Bennett’s hours were being cut, other employees of the department received raises. Those left out of the wage increase were Bennett and Fullum. Bennett also reportedly lost her health insurance benefits. Bean said just having her hours cut and loss of benefits is enough to prove constructive discharge.

The attorneys agreed some of those listed as parties to the lawsuit, such as the county commissioners and county auditor could be dismissed. A court document dismissing some of the defendants from the case is expected to be drafted for Reinbold to sign in the near future.

Reinbold said the attorneys could expect a decision on the motion by Climer, who wants the judge to rule in favor of the coroner, sometime near the end of April.