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Elections director wins lawsuit

After years of fighting with county commissioners, a judge has ordered Swain County to fund retirement benefits for Elections Director Joan Weeks.

Weeks has served as the county’s elections director since October 1983, but she and the commissioners have had a disagreement over whether Weeks was a full-time employee entitled to receive retirement benefits from 1983 until 1993.

According to the July 13 judgment out of Swain County Superior Court, Weeks was promised when she was hired that she would receive the same benefits as any other county employee, including membership into the state Local Government Employees’ Retirement System. Membership into the retirement system was a benefit provided to all full-time county employees, but Swain County didn’t begin paying into the system for Weeks’ retirement until Jan. 1, 1993. 

Weeks argued that her benefits should have started in 1983 and has asked commissioners repeatedly to fund those previous years. 

The judgment states that Weeks did in fact work more than 1,000 hours a year during 1984, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1991 and 1992 and was indeed eligible to be accruing retirement benefits. 

Weeks first pointed out the mistake to commissioners in 1992 when she spoke to Swain County Commissioner Donald Bunn about not receiving her retirement as required by law. He initially told her she wasn’t eligible, but then she showed him the applicable law and the county began funding her retirement shortly after that in January 1993.

But still, Weeks continued to lobby the commissioners for funding the previous years. In 2009, she was told by Commission Chairman Russell Childress that the board had agreed to fund her retirement from 1983-1992. However, County Manager Kevin King told the board, according to the judgment, that he had a document signed by Weeks waiving her right to retirement benefits prior to 1993. 

That waiver never appeared before the board or during the trial. Weeks testified that she had never signed such a waiver and the court found her testimony to be credible. 

“No waiver signed by Joan Weeks waiving her right to receive benefits from the North Carolina State Retirement system was introduced into evidence at the trial on this matter,” the judgment stated. 

King testified during the trial that he was not aware payment of retirement benefits from Swain County to the state system was mandatory until Weeks’ lawsuit was filed. 

In 2015, Weeks was notified by the commissioners the county would not be paying her back benefits. This time she received an official denial letter and was told by King that if she didn’t like the decision, “she could just sue them, they (the board of commissioners) have insurance.”

The judgment also states that the commissioners never took an official vote to deny Weeks’ benefits during a legally noticed and called meeting of the board, which is required by law. 

Superior Court Judge Marvin Pope ordered Swain County to fund the county portion of Weeks’ retirement during 1994, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1991 and 1992. 

The second part of Weeks’ lawsuit against the county claimed she was entitled to salary increases she never received from the county. During 2015-2017, the local Board of Elections approved pay increases for Weeks and requested commissioners to fund the increases within the county budget, but the only raise Weeks received during those years was a small annual cost of living increase that all county employees received. 

In her lawsuit, Weeks requested to be paid for those raises that never happened — $6,946 for 2015, $6,337 for 2016 and $3,396 for 2017. However, the court found that the Board of Elections had enough funds left in its discretionary budget at the end of the year to fund the pay increases it had approved for Weeks in 2015-2017. 

Based on Swain County’s salary plan, the court found that Weeks’ salary was in line with her grade and comparable to similar counties. It also found that the county commissioners have the discretion to fund salaries as long as they are consistent with statutory guidelines. 

Her request to be paid $16,679 in wages was denied. 

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