ATOKA — A judge has ordered DHS to pay a former Atoka County child welfare worker $244,694 — ruling the agency wrongfully fired her based on the results of a slipshod internal investigation.
“DHS had a legal obligation to ensure that they properly and lawfully assessed whether or not they had just cause to terminate the employment,” District Judge Mark Campbell wrote in his March 27 order. “DHS woefully failed to do so.”
Annette Watson, 48, of Atoka, told The Oklahoman Wednesday that she feels vindicated by the verdict in the nonjury trial.
“It feels very rewarding to have not just one, but two judges who were able to see through what they do and restore my reputation,” Watson said, referring to the recent ruling by Campbell, as well as a 2008 ruling in her earlier Merit Protection Commission case by administrative law judge P.K. Floyd.
The Oklahoma Department of Human Services plans to appeal the verdict against DHS and former supervisor William Wilson Jr., said Sheree Powell, DHS spokeswoman.
“The agency just recently received the ruling in this lawsuit,” Powell said. “After reviewing the order, our attorneys respectfully disagree with the judge's findings and conclusions and plan to appeal the order to the Oklahoma Supreme Court.”
Watson was represented in the case by Oklahoma City attorney Daniel Gamino. She was fired Dec. 18, 2007, based on allegations of misconduct, unauthorized disclosure of confidential information, insubordination and misuse of state property or equipment, records show.
The allegations stemmed from a complaint a DHS supervisor received that Watson had violated confidentiality laws. Watson was accused of revealing the identity of a person who had reported possible child abuse to the child's mother.
Wilson, former DHS Area IV supervisor, elected to terminate Watson without first interviewing Watson to get her side of the story, without interviewing the woman to whom she had supposedly leaked confidential information, and without interviewing the woman who filed the possible child abuse complaint, the judge wrote.
Watson and the child's mother both strongly denied that Watson had disclosed the identity of the complaining party, the judge noted.
“There was absolutely nothing to suggest” a confidentiality breach really occurred, the judge said in his order.
Law, policy violated
Wilson, the supervisor, violated state law and DHS policy by failing to follow progressive discipline procedures and failing to solicit information about mitigating circumstances, the judge wrote.
DHS officials attempted to justify their actions by issuing a reprimand dated Nov. 27, 2007, that cited incidents that allegedly occurred earlier that month and in June 2008.
The judge described the attempt to discipline Watson the day before she was given her notice of suspension “nothing more than a poorly plotted ruse.”
The judge called the actions taken against Watson “irresponsible and hurtful” and said Watson suffered “an enormous psychological toll.”
He awarded Watson $94,694.30 for actual damages and $150,000 for pain and suffering, for a combined total of $244,694.30.
Watson told The Oklahoman she believes she was targeted for discipline because she speaks her mind and had testified contrary to the way supervisors wanted her to in a case where two children had been removed from a home where a meth lab had been operating.
Watson said her supervisors wanted her to recommend placement of the children in the guardianship of their grandmother, because their goal was to reduce the number of children in state custody.
“I said ‘no,'
“You can't tell me she didn't know about it,” Watson said. “She didn't protect her grandchildren in the first place.”
Watson said the prosecutor agreed with her and the judge followed their advice.
DHS officials reacted by ordering a massive audit of the county office, she said. The complaint and disciplinary action came later.
Watson said she worked about 15 years in child welfare. She worked about 12 years before she was fired and about three more after she was reinstated by the merit protection court, she said.
Watson resigned after the recent trial and said she plans to go back to school and eventually open a counseling service.
Wilson retired earlier this year, Powell said.