SC Supreme Court sides with former Surfside Beach employee in lawsuit

SC Supreme Court sides with former Surfside Beach employee in lawsuit
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SURFSIDE BEACH, SC (WMBF) – The state Supreme Court has sided with a former Surfside Beach employee who filed a lawsuit against the town after being fired in April 2012.

According to court documents, former town building inspector Jacklyn Donevant went on medical leave in December 2011. While she was out, a demolition permit was issued by the city of Myrtle Beach, who was put in charge of Donevant's responsibilities, to a tenant who was looking to remodel the vacant pier restaurant space.

When Donevant returned to work in March 2012, current interim town manager Jim Duckett told her she would be fired if she "change[d] anything that was done … in [her] absence," court records stated.

WMBF News partner My Horry News previously reported that soon after returning, Donevant discovered that hardwood floors were being installed at the pier restaurant, according to the lawsuit. The builder had a demolition permit but lacked a necessary construction permit, so Donevant wrote a "stop work" ticket.

After issuing the stop-work order, per the responsibilities of her job, she was reportedly suspended. According to My Horry News, court records stated Duckett also removed the ticket she had posted.

The lawsuit alleges Duckett then instructed another staff member to issue a construction permit for the work even though construction plans for the eatery had not been approved. The staff member who did this didn't have the proper license and authority to do so under state law, My Horry News previously reported.

According to court documents, when she returned to work on March 25, 2012, Donevant delivered a letter to Duckett that stated, in part:

My suspension was not right. All I did was follow the law, which you did [not] want me to follow. Like I told you the other day, I will follow the law even if that means not following your instructions.

On April 4, 2012, Duckett fired Donevant. She then filed a wrongful termination lawsuit, and a trial court jury ruled in her favor.

In August 2015, the town of Surfside Beach appealed the trial court's denial of its motion for a directed verdict, according to court documents.

"The Town argues that by denying its motion for a directed verdict, the trial court erred in expanding the public policy exception to at-will employment beyond situations where the employer requires the employee to violate criminal law or the reason for the employee's termination itself is a violation of criminal law," court records stated.

The court of appeals affirmed the jury verdict in favor of Donevant.

In its Feb. 28, 2018 opinion, the S.C. Supreme Court affirmed the appeals court's decision after the town contended the ruling "greatly expanded the public policy exception.

"When she discovered construction work being done without a permit, which she correctly determined to be in violation of the building code, it became her mandatory responsibility to 'ensure compliance,'" the Supreme Court's opinion stated. "As we read this record and the court of appeals' opinion, Donevant was fired because she carried out her mandatory responsibility under the law to enforce the provisions of the building code."

WMBF News has left a message for leaders with the town of Surfside Beach seeking comment.

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