Former DMR Executive Director Bill Walker asked Ava Coleman to trust him, so she tried, the former Lyman Fish Hatchery manager says in a lawsuit.
She lost her house and mental stability, then was demoted and eventually fired from the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, Coleman says in the lawsuit she filed Tuesday in Harrison County Circuit Court against the DMR and the director who fired her, Jamie Miller. The DMR had the lawsuit moved this week to U.S. District Court.
Coleman alleges Miller and the DMR violated federal age discrimination and disability laws when they fired her, entitling her to compensation for lost wages and emotional distress, plus punitive damages, attorney’s fees and court costs.
Her lawsuit outlines her humiliation at the hands of Walker and Joe Ziegler, who both lost their jobs at the DMR amid allegations of financial wrongdoing. The men were indicted and pleaded guilty to federal crimes. Walker is in prison. Ziegler, his chief of staff, was sentenced to house arrest.
Coleman says Miller, who replaced Walker in April 2014, fired her without cause five months later while she was on leave and preparing to visit her daughter in another state.
Coleman joined the Lyman Fish Hatchery in March 1989, when it was managed by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries & Parks. A biologist, she was promoted in 1992 to be the first female fish-hatchery manager in Mississippi and, possibly, the first in the continental United States.
Coleman continued in her job, raising fish to stock Mississippi waterways until April 2007, when, she says, Walker and Ziegler paid a visit to the hatchery. They asked her, she says, to agree to a “voluntary transfer” to the DMR, saying she would need to vacate the hatchery house where she and her husband had lived for 15 years, but would continue to serve as hatchery manager and have her pay adjusted because her living expenses would increase.
Shortly after the visit, Coleman says, Ziegler began to harass her and pressure her to move from the hatchery. In July 2007, she says, Ziegler drove out to the hatchery and, red-faced, yelled at her to get in his car. Coleman’s lawsuit says she filed an internal complaint alleging harassment, but Walker found “no discrimination” and threatened to retaliate if she pursued it.
The lawsuit says: “Undeterred, Mr. Ziegler’s systematic attacks on Ms. Coleman continued and escalated to threats of termination — all while Mr. Ziegler ignored Ms. Coleman’s repeated, legitimate requests for assistance and supplies needed to keep the Lyman Hatchery running, locked Ms. Coleman out of her own office at the hatchery; interposed an unqualified law enforcement official over Ms. Coleman at the hatchery as her ‘supervisor;’ and continued to lodge bogus disciplinary actions against Ms. Coleman … ”
When she appealed, her lawsuit says, a state administrative judge recommended the DMR find another position for Coleman, acknowledging her success as a state manager and the DMR’s needs at the hatchery. Instead, she says, she returned to the same “hostile” work environment and was forced in May 2008 to take an extended medical leave due to stress.
She returned to work a year later and was transferred to a “low-level” job at DMR headquarters in Biloxi. She says she did whatever she was asked while employees with similar or less experience were placed in decision-making roles.
Coleman says she received verbal permission for personal leave, common practice at the agency, but she was accused of leaving the job without approval and fired.
The DMR declined to comment on the pending lawsuit. Coleman’s attorney, Kaye Persons of Biloxi, has not responded to a request for comments.
Kelly Lucas, the DMR’s chief scientific officer, now oversees the hatchery, according to the DMR.