STATESVILLE, N.C. (CN) - A North Carolina district attorney sexually harassed an attorney who worked for him, then defamed her by telling local attorneys he'd fired her for misconduct, though she had resigned to get away from him, the woman claims in court claims.
Whitney Nicole Shaffer sued James C. Gaither Jr., in Federal Court, individually and in his official capacity as district attorney of North Carolina's 25th Prosecutorial District.
Shaffer claims that during the four months she worked as an assistant district attorney, Gaither repeatedly tried to coerce her into having sex with him, pressured her into accompanying him to his lake house, and otherwise engaged in aggressive and abusive behavior while he was drinking or drunk.
Shaffer was assigned to the Catawba County District Court and worked in a satellite office in Hickory, N.C.
"The satellite office was usually staffed only by plaintiff and an investigator, and plaintiff was frequently in the office alone," Shaffer says in the lawsuit.
Shaffer says her predecessor in the Hickory office told her that Gaither stopped by the office only every couple of months. "However, beginning almost immediately, defendant appeared unannounced in the Hickory Office as often as once or twice a week. Defendant usually arrived near the end of the day, when plaintiff was alone in the office," according to the complaint.
It continues: "During these unannounced visits, defendant frequently appeared to be inebriated or otherwise impaired. He engaged plaintiff in conversations which were inappropriate, and which she found threatening and abusive."
On one occasion, she says, Gaither grabbed her wrist and "explained how important 'wrist control' was to overpowering an opponent."
On another, she says, he told her his favorite television program was "Vikings," "explaining that he enjoyed it because the Vikings were not afraid to kill for what they wanted."
"Throughout plaintiff's employment, defendant expressly stated to plaintiff that he was a very powerful man and was not afraid to use his power in favor of those who supported him and against those that crossed him or would not support him," Shaffer says in the complaint.
To illustrate his power, Shaffer claims, Gaither directed her to enter dismissals on contested cases for which she was not the acting ADA. She says she believes these orders were an attempt to obtain favorable or preferential judicial outcomes for his friends and political allies. She says she refused to comply with the requests.
One request she did comply with was giving Gaither her personal cell phone number, believing, she says, that he would use it to contact her for work-related issues if he could not reach her in any other way.
However, she says, shortly thereafter, she began receiving text messages from Gaither that were clearly not related to work.
" On or about the afternoon of Thursday, April 25, 2013, defendant made another unannounced visit to the Hickory office. He then insisted that plaintiff leave the office and go to dinner with him, so that he could speak with her without being overheard by anyone else. Plaintiff reluctantly agreed because she believed her job would be in jeopardy if she did not attend," Shaffer says in the complaint.
She continues: "Although defendant told plaintiff that the purpose of the dinner was to discuss business, it quickly became apparent that he had different intentions. He drank heavily during the meal, and made several inappropriate sexual comments to her, demanding that she tell him about her sexual history. Defendant's conduct made plaintiff feel very uncomfortable.
"Defendant asked plaintiff if 'this would be a bad time to hit on [her].' Plaintiff responded that she understood his intentions, but that she was not willing to have a non-business relationship with him. Plaintiff attempted to make light of the situation, as defendant was her boss and she recognized the power he had over her.
"Following dinner, plaintiff requested that defendant drive her back to the office, as promised. Defendant and plaintiff left the dinner in defendant's car. While defendant was driving, he put his right hand on plaintiff's left thigh and began to move his hand up her inner thigh. Plaintiff grabbed defendant's hand and stopped him. She again told defendant that she did not want that kind of relationship. Defendant's unwanted touching made plaintiff feel violated and uncomfortable."
But Gaither could not be discouraged, Shaffer says. After stopping at a convenience store to buy a beer, and under the pretext of driving her back to the office, Shaffer says, he drove her to his lake home against her will.
"During the drive, plaintiff asked defendant where he was going and repeatedly told him that he needed to take her back to the office. After reaching defendant's lake house, defendant tried to persuade plaintiff to go into the house with him. He attempted to kiss her, and to force her to touch him. Plaintiff understood that defendant wanted her to go inside to have a physical relationship with him."
She says that after she refused to go into the house and demanded to taken back to the office, Gaither finally complied. She says that during the drive the DA demanded to know whether she would tell anyone about the incident, and she assured him that she would not.
The next day, Shaffer says, Gaither again showed up at the Hickory office and asked her to go for a run with him. She says she complied only because she was sure their conversation during the run would occur in a public place.
During the run, she says, Gaither told her "that it upset him to have to chase her."
"He further told her that she was 'giving up a good opportunity' by refusing to have sex with him," she says in the complaint.
Over the next several days, Shaffer says, Gaither continued his unwanted sexual advances, repeatedly texting her suggestive messages.
"Fearful for both her job and, in light of his habit of making unannounced visits to the Hickory office and his statements about 'wrist control' and violence, her safety, she decided to respond to his text messages," Shaffer says.
"The following work week was close to unbearable for plaintiff," Shaffer says. "In addition to working at the Hickory office and expecting that defendant would drop in at any moment, she was subjected to a barrage of harassing text messages from him. He remarked on her body and clothing, texting 'Miss the dress' after seeing that she was wearing pants, and asking 'Do you ever wear loose fitting dresses? Or skirts[.]'
"Defendant also tried to convince plaintiff to go for runs with him, to meet him at the gym, and to have dinner with him. She dodged him repeatedly, claiming that she did not have time to meet with him. Again, plaintiff sought to avoid escalating her interactions with defendant."
Shaffer says she resigned via a text on May 5, 2013, and left a copy of her letter of resignation on the desk in the Hickory office.
Schaffer says she wrote in her text message: "... I do not intend to make a public issue of my concerns so any concerns about the election or your family should not be an issue. It would be better to avoid contacting me again. You can tell others I am pursuing an alternative job opportunity."
She says Gaither responded with a terse, "Understood." (61)
Nevertheless, she says, "Defendant told at least David Moose and Scott Riley - both attorneys in the local bar where plaintiff practiced - that he had fired plaintiff for misconduct. Upon information and belief, he made similar statements to Judge Gregory R. Hayes.
"Defendant's statements were false and defendant knew they were false at the time he made the statements."
Shaffer seeks damages for sexual harassment/hostile work environment, constructive discharge and defamation.
She is represented by John R. Buric, with James, McElroy & Diehl, of Charlotte.