4 SC agency commissioners still embroiled in lawsuit over director’s termination

Mary Poole sued both the department and several commission members over her termination in February 2021.
Published: Dec. 27, 2022 at 6:08 PM EST|Updated: Dec. 27, 2022 at 8:53 PM EST
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - As the South Carolina Department of Disabilities and Special Needs prepares to face the new year without a director, the state agency’s leadership remains in litigation with one of its former directors.

While the South Carolina Department of Disabilities and Special Needs will remain without a director heading into the new year, its leadership is still in litigation with a former director.

Mary Poole sued both the department and several commission members over her termination in February 2021.

Poole served as director for more than two years.

“She’s devastated; Ms. Poole is someone who’s worked with disabled people individuals for over three decades,” her lawyer Jack Cohoon said.

Poole filed a lawsuit against the department, four commissioners and a now former Internal Audit director in April 2021 alleging violation of the Freedom of Information Act, civil conspiracy and defamation.

Judge Lawton McIntosh ruled in favor of Poole, agreeing that DDSN, its leadership and its employees violated FOIA by holding “illegal secret meetings” leading up to Poole’s firing, granting her six months back pay and attorney’s fees.

But the individual named could still be found liable for civil conspiracy and defamation.

That includes Commission chair Stephanie Rawlinson, David Thomas, Vice Chairman Barry Malphrus, Robin Blackwood and former internal audit director Kevin Yacobi.

Mary Poole sued both the department and several commission members over her termination in...
Mary Poole sued both the department and several commission members over her termination in February 2021.(Live 5)

The judge dismissed the department from these claims.

Cohoon says they struggled to begin gathering information related to these accusations.

“The defendants, the individual commissioners and the individual employee that were named and the agency all refused to participate in that process and they sought what’s called a motion for judgment on the pleadings, basically to say that there were no claims, no viable claims against them,” Cohoon explained.

But a judge ruled against the defendants earlier this month, allowing the case to move forward.

READ MORE: Documents reveal what led up to firing of SC disabilities director

After Poole’s termination, commission members reported it was due to the mishandling of a sexual misconduct case.

“The first she had heard of any allegation about her handling of any sexual harassment matter was two weeks after her termination when this letter was released by the commission,” Cohoon said. “The commission’s not even required to provide a reason, but they went out of their way to provide a reason that is indeed false,” he added.

Cohoon says they are still in the discovery and negotiation process. They are seeking damages for lost wages and damage to reputation.

“She’s not been able to find a anything similar in terms of a job for several years because of the false information that the commissioners put out there about their supposed reason for termination,” Cohoon said.

The current director, Dr. Michelle Fry resigned from the department last week. Her last official day is Friday, Jan. 6.

READ MORE: SC senator blames agency director’s early resignation on ‘problematic’ commission

We have reached out to the individuals who are named in the lawsuit as well as their representation but have not heard back.