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It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘idiot’ is

Al Harris May 20, 2010 18

Sometimes work is like a middle school playground.

A city employee is suing Richmond’s Director of Community Development Rachel Flynn for calling him an “idiot” on numerous occasions. If the case proceeds, lawyers will likely haggle over what constitutes an “idiot.”

Roy Eidem, the director of operations for the city’s code enforcement division, claims in the lawsuit that he suffered “humiliation, embarrassment, mortification, ridicule, exposure to public infamy, disgrace, scandal, injury to his reputation and feelings, and financial loss” as a result of the insult first hurled at an August 2009 meeting in front of staff members.

The suit, filed May 13, claims Flynn referred to Eidem as an idiot on at least two occasions after the initial incident.

Eidem is seeking a total of $1.2 million in damages. The case seeks damages from Flynn on three counts: defamation, slander and insulting words. Eidem is represented by attorney Sandra Robinson of Robinson Law and Consulting Firm.

The City of Richmond is also listed as a defendant against charges of “negligent retention” because it did not fire Flynn prior to the incident even though it had previously received a complaint about her behavior from a resigning employee.

Flynn said in an email to BizSense that she cannot comment on pending legal matters. Neither Eidem nor the city attorney returned calls from BizSense requesting comment.

Following the incident, Eidem filed an official grievance with the Department of Human Resources, which released its findings to the head of the economic and community development department Peter Chapman in January. That memo is included with the case filing in Richmond District Court.

According to a witness of the event as recounted in the memo, “Ms. Flynn belittled Mr. Eidem in a way that should not have happened to anyone and in a setting that had multiple people. …The witness also stated although Mr. Eidem had made mistakes it was no reason for the conversation to go the way it did and it is a day that will not be forgotten.”

Another instance when Flynn is said to have called Eidem an idiot is reported to have occurred at a lunch meeting with subordinate staff members in which Flynn asked them for their thoughts on Eidem. When they did not respond, Flynn was reported as saying that Eidem was an idiot and had to go, according to the complaint. A different staff member also recalled another occasion when Flynn used the word again to describe Eidem.

The HR investigation team concluded that Flynn did not violate a city administrative regulation against harassment. The code defines harassment as “a form of discrimination where a person is subjected to a hostile or offensive work environment because of threatening, intimidating, embarrassing, or other offensive behavior based on his/her race, religion, age, disability, sex, or national origin or sexual orientation.”

The memo concludes that Eidem’s age qualifies him as one of the protected groups, but that the description of Flynn’s behavior did not meet the definition. However, the team did conclude that Flynn violated an administrative regulation that requires employees to “treat every individual with respect and courtesy” as well as a regulation against misuse of email. At some point, Flynn sent Eidem an email that contained the word “hell.”  In her statement, she said that she used the word because she was frustrated.

No disciplinary action appears to have been taken against Flynn, but the team stated in its memo: “Ms. Flynn requires improvement in her professional behavior (verbal and written). It is inappropriate for a Director or anyone in a leadership position to criticize or discuss an employee’s issues with a subordinate staff member.”

As for the civil suit, employment lawyer Douglas Burtch said that its success may boil down to semantics.

“What is an idiot? That is going to be a key issue in the case,” Burtch said when presented with the facts of the case.

According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, idiot has two definitions. One is “a person affected with extreme mental retardation,” and the other is “a foolish or stupid person.”

“Employees will perceive that the boss is yelling or being mean, but there is no statute protecting against meanness. There are statutes protecting against discrimination and common law protection against slander,” Burtch said.

Burtch said the plaintiff will have to prove the damage caused by the statements made against him.

“There would need to be something to prove such as medical records, a lost contract or a passed-over promotion,” said Burtch.

Burtch said a likely defense is that the supervisor was making a statement of opinion rather than stating a fact. For a defamation charge to stick, it has to be provably false.

Al Harris is a BizSense reporter. Please send news tips to AL (at) richmondbizsense.com.

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18 Comments »

  1. Cindy May 20, 2010 at 7:07 am - Reply

    I can only imagine what subordinates call Rachel Flynn behind her back. I don’t understand why the city keeps promoting such horrible people when so many people sincerely care about making the city a great place. There was that Economic Development staffer charged with Cocaine posession few months ago, now Rachel Flynn abusing her power.

  2. Andrew May 20, 2010 at 7:30 am - Reply

    There are always at least two sides to every story. Although Ms. Flynn’s position may carry a certain higher standard for professional behavior, who among us hasn’t spoken rashly in the heat of the moment? And, after all, the actions of Mr. Eidem leading to the comment(s) may actually confirm an idiot status. Let’s give Rachel Flynn the benefit of the doubt – she is doing great things for the City of Richmond.

  3. Bill May 20, 2010 at 7:49 am - Reply

    Dear Mr. Eidem, I think I speak for all of mankind when I wish you the best of luck in finding your balls. Until then, your mommy says you can cry on her shoulder.

  4. Matthew Illian May 20, 2010 at 7:58 am - Reply

    After my wife, I LOVE RACHEL FLYNN. Considering all the flack that she takes from those on the darkside of healthy growth in this city, I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. Can some group please come up with bumper stickers saying “We Support Rachel Flynn”.

  5. Joan Izzo May 20, 2010 at 8:04 am - Reply

    This is an amazing story of bad management.

  6. Sam McDonald May 20, 2010 at 8:19 am - Reply

    There are some fantastic City employees, and there are some idiots. In order for this City to reach its potential, we have to cull the idiots.

  7. Sterling May 20, 2010 at 8:22 am - Reply

    The mere fact that the plaintiff filed this silly lawsuit tends to lend credence to Ms. Flynn’s alleged description.

  8. Rebecca May 20, 2010 at 8:51 am - Reply

    Just think of how many potholes could be filled with the money the city will have to spend to defend this suit.

  9. james May 20, 2010 at 8:53 am - Reply

    I can see this having happened. Flynn has a notoriously short temper and never has worked well with others. Bottom line is a good manager never denigrates their employees, but even decent managers know if you have to, you do it privately, not in front of their peers. A good manager would never open themselves or the city up to this kind of action.

    And for the Partnership for No Growth — uh, I mean, smarter growth — wackjobs posting here, you’re not fooling anyone. Flynn is one of the reasons Richmond has such a high tax rate. She prevents reasonable growth which retards tax revenue and causes the city to have a property tax rate 20% higher than any local government around here.

  10. david gammino May 20, 2010 at 10:56 am - Reply

    Rachel Flynn has about as much to do with Richmond’s high tax rate as Ronald McDonald does with getting you a cheeseburger, you moron. Yes, certainly we should blame her for white flight, the substandard schools, and the resultant demographics which strain all City services.

    She is working in a very challenging situation-a typical municipal bureaucracy where an incompent employee is able to serve ad infinitum.

    The merits of this lawsuit speaks volume regarding the accuracy of her statement

  11. Steve May 20, 2010 at 12:56 pm - Reply

    I hope my children don’t sue each other…and thank goodness she didn’t call him a “Big Poophead” or a “Doofus”. The lawsuit could cost Millions!

  12. dw May 20, 2010 at 1:24 pm - Reply

    Grow a pair, Eidem.

  13. Benjamin May 20, 2010 at 8:24 pm - Reply

    You might think Flynn is good for the City of richmond. Regardless, Flynn has consistenly shown herself to be something between a bully and a whiney spoiled brat. As an administrator responsible for such a large department, a certain level of decorum, restraint, and professional respect is expected. Looks like a pretty big weakness to me if public berating and name-calling is the only way she knows how to deal with performance issues. How unfortunate it took this long for someone like Eidem to challenge her. This isn’t a million dollar issue, but go for it anyway, man. good luck.

  14. Jeff E. May 21, 2010 at 10:15 am - Reply

    I agree 100% with Sterling. Plus wasn’t this the division that had employees spending half their work weeks hanging out at home? I doubt those were the only abuses either.

    http://www2.timesdispatch.com/rtd/news/local/article/BILD181_20080917-232608/26466/

  15. James Tracey May 23, 2010 at 1:41 pm - Reply

    Rachel Flynn did such a fantastic job in Lynchburg that the movers and shakers in Richmond took her from us. Her downtown plan for Lynchburg and careful attention to detail has generated millions of dollars in new construction and renovation downtown. Its a great place to live now. I think she is one of the best in her field in the United States. Give the benefit of doubt and withhold judging when and if the matter gets to court. There will be probably be a settlement reached out of court and we will never get to see whether or not the complainant is really an idiot. He seems to be thin skinned to say the least.

  16. Eric M. Engler December 30, 2010 at 3:20 pm - Reply

    The obvious question – Why doesn’t the City resolve cases of poor performance in all its offices and departments by consistent enforcement of a routine employee evaluation process?

    This isn’t about one person insulting another. The problem is low performance standards. It’s my understanding that Supreme Court Justices are appointed ‘for life’, not City employees.

  17. Kent Brockwell January 3, 2011 at 12:54 pm - Reply

    When bashing my co-workers’ intelligence, I prefer using variations of “Tara Reid.” Example: “If you weren’t such a Reid, you would have used the right TPS report cover sheet” or “Man, you really Reided up that presentation.”

    Results: 35% less complaints to HR in 2010! Success!

  18. H Owen December 30, 2011 at 2:34 am - Reply

    Roy Eidem is a good man; Intelligent, caring and dedicated to his work. I worked with him for thirty years and found him to be an excellent mentor and team player. He was level headed and never disparaged his coworkers, the public, or complained. Unfortunately, there is always a boss who is abusive, abrasive, and insulting, who speaks their mind (opinion) crudely in a public forum. Such angry outbursts undermine the entire agency’s mission and effectiveness.

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