Former chief deputy sues Charleston sheriff, county over firing

Published: Aug. 23, 2022 at 3:45 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 23, 2022 at 8:12 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - For the first time since Charleston County Sheriff Kristin Graziano fired her second-in-command, the former employee’s legal team is sharing her side of the story.

In a new federal lawsuit, filed on Tuesday afternoon, attorneys for Joyce Smith argue the firing was retaliatory. The suit names Graziano, head of Internal Affairs Ameed Sad and Charleston County.

Smith’s attorneys held a news conference on the lawsuit:

Smith claims in court documents that her defaulted student loans were a technicality used to terminate her 25-year career in law enforcement, and it had never been cited before within the department as a reason for termination.

“We think it was a cover-up,” attorney Sean Wilson said. The team filed an initial complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in February and then another in April. They received the right to sue letters in early June.

“The facts are egregious. I think what this client, Miss Joyce Smith, went through nobody should have ever had to endure. I think we all have mothers we all have sisters. We all have nieces and daughters and if we don’t stand up for her and show was right, it would be a disservice to my mother or my niece,” he said.

The lawsuit describes how Smith reportedly spoke up several times about issues she saw within the department, including sexual harassment from other deputies and Sad.

Some comments included that an employee “complains like a damn woman” and supervisors telling their employees “all they did was pass out panties and tampons.”

Sad is also accused of calling Smith “uptight” and “attempted to persuade another person employed with the Sheriff’s Office to sexually assault her in order to calm [her] down.”

When Smith attempted to address these issues with Graziano, she was met with “a campaign of retaliating” which included gifts of “Mammy Dolls” to her and her secretary.

Smith's attorney, Sean Wilson, displays a "Mammy Doll" Smith alleges she received as a gift...
Smith's attorney, Sean Wilson, displays a "Mammy Doll" Smith alleges she received as a gift from Graziano.(Live 5)

“Historically, these dolls have a significant meaning, especially in the African American Community, which is something that should not be given as a gift. It’s more of a demoralizing part of history that we’re trying to overcome as African-Americans,” Wilson said. “She deserves way more than this. It’s an insult,” Wilson said.

The Jim Crow Musuem of Racist Memorabilia, located at Ferris State University in Michigan, states the dolls are one of the most enduring caricature portrayals of African America women.

The lawsuit also references the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C., which analyzes the meaning of the dolls to be “representing that Black Americans, specifically Black women, have limited value and should not attempt to rise above their station.”

In her lawsuit, Smith claims her secretary received this "Mammy Doll" from Graziano.
In her lawsuit, Smith claims her secretary received this "Mammy Doll" from Graziano.(Live 5)

READ MORE: High-ranking Charleston County Sheriff’s Office official fired

The lawsuit also claims Graziano met with Smith in a North Charleston park on Martin Luther King Day to show her the termination letter and telling her to resign before she was fired. Smith refused.

Eight days later, Smith took a leave of absence under the Family and Medical Leave Act, which she was on until April 1 when Graziano officially fired her.

In that termination letter, Graziano wrote that she gave Smith several opportunities to get her financial obligation in order.

She wrote, “I am sorry that it has come to this, but you have left me no other reasonable alternative.”

In the lawsuit, Smith says that before she took the job at the Sheriff’s Office Graziano had described her student loan situation as a “non-issue.”

Smith’s lawyers, Sean Wilson and Ben Pogue, say Smith took time off of work to cope with the stress and anxiety from the “abusive” environment of the sheriff’s office.

“For Joyce, it’s been tumultuous. You know, she’s somebody who’s a very caring and giving person but these last few months have been probably the most stressful times of her life. She’s been dealing with a great deal of anxiety. She’s been dealing with a great deal of emotional suffering. She’s afraid to talk on the phone. She’s afraid to see people that she’s afraid to just be out in the community,” Wilson said.

They have requested a jury trial.

In the days following her termination, the news struck a nerve with activists who called for her reinstatement and criticized the sheriff.

Last month, Graziano hired longtime department veteran Fletcher King to replace Smith as chief deputy.

Charleston County spokesperson Kelsey Barlow said Charleston County Government does not comment on pending litigation.

Graziano responded to a request for comment with a statement Tuesday night:

The Charleston County Sheriff’s Office is bound by law to follow strict employment guidelines, as outlined by the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy policy and in state law. As was described in her termination letter in April, previously made public, former Chief Deputy Joyce Smith swore through an affidavit at the time of her hire that she would correct her federal student loan status. During the annual review process, it was found that she had not.”

Joyce was a trusted adviser to me during her tenure at the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office. I adamantly deny her allegations; they are false, and I don’t take them lightly. Our legal counsel is awaiting the filing of any complaint. I am proud of our work that we’ve done in the past year and a half.