On March 30, 2023, Senior U.S. District Judge C. Ashley Royal ordered that Stephanie Maddox, a former Athens-Clarke County internal auditor, could proceed in her lawsuit alleging First Amendment retaliation against Athens-Clarke County. However, her retaliation claims against Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz and County Manager Blaine Williams were found to be time barred by the applicable statute of limitations and dismissed. The court also held that the individuals were entitled to qualified immunity. 

Maddox brought suit in October 2021, alleging that Girtz, Williams, and Athens-Clarke County retaliated against her after she filed an Open Records Act request seeking access to a report that investigated Athens-Clarke County employee salaries as compared to those of surrounding counties. Maddox alleges in her second amended complaint that upon receipt and review of three pay study reports, she uncovered that Williams had misappropriated more than $4.8 million. Maddox alleges that when she brought this to Girtz’s attention, he threatened that she should avoid repeating such conduct if she wanted to remain employed. She further alleges that Girtz harassed her and made unreasonable work demands until she was eventually fired in September 2021. 

In holding that the statute of limitations applied to bar Maddox’s retaliation claims against the individuals, Judge Royal found that most of the alleged instances of misconduct complained of took place too long ago, and the “continuing violation doctrine” did not apply to avoid application of the limitations period.  

However, the court held that Maddox’s First Amendment retaliation claim against Athens-Clarke County could proceed, as the second amended complaint sufficiently alleged that county commissioners were on notice of her official complaints in March 2020 before voting to fire her in 2021. Maddox alleges that one commissioner even made a comment about firing her and paying her to leave. Furthermore, the court held that Maddox sufficiently alleged a causal connection between her protected speech and her termination for her Georgia Whistleblower Act claim to proceed against the county.

The case is Maddox v. Girtz et al., case number 3:21-CV-124, in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia.

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