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New York County Pays $35,000 to Settle Retaliation Claim Against Sheriff

by Dale Chappell 

Officials in Rensselaer County, New York approved a settlement on January 8, 2019 to resolve a federal lawsuit against Sheriff Jack Mahar. Mahar was accused of retaliating against the county’s jail chief, who was fired in 2013 for what the lawsuit claimed was her refusal to follow the sheriff’s orders to take part in the firing of an employee and refusal to shred documents tied to a criminal investigation of the sheriff’s “best friend.”

When Ruth Vibert became the Chief of Corrections and Jail Administratorfor the Rensselaer County Sheriff’s Department in 2012, she was brought in to improve jail conditions following a series of scandals and prisoner abuse incidents. She lasted about a year before the sheriff found a way to terminate her based on “not meeting the educational requirements for her position,” according to her complaint.

The friction between Vibert and the sheriff that led to her firing was her refusal to get in the middle of a domestic dispute between Mahar and another jail employee, and for refusing to shred documents that were part of a criminal investigation into a workplace violence incident with that employee and the sheriff’s best friend, who was a sergeant at the jail. 

Vibert’s lawsuit, filed in 2014, noted Mahar’s “pattern of illegal conduct” while sheriff, including repeatedly retaliating against employees who supported his political opponent, authorizing the illegal use of department computers for retaliatory reasons, discriminating against employees due to their gender and violating the medical privacy of his employees. 

Vibert claimed that her firing caused her to lose her home and reduced her $85,000 annual income to just $25,000 at her new job. She also alleged that the county opposed her application for unemployment benefits, though she ended up winning that fight. 

All of this, Vibert argued, violated her First and Fourteenth Amendment rights, including her right to refuse to engage in unlawful conduct by destroying the documents and retaliating against the jail employee. When Sheriff Mahar and the county moved for summary judgment in 2017, U.S. District Court Judge Gary L. Sharpe denied their motion and set the case for trial. 

The county then reached a settlement with Vibert for $35,000. The settlement, however, did not address Vibert’s request to get her job back or the status of her whistleblower claim under New York state law. See: Vibert v. City of Rensselaer, U.S.D.C. (N.D. NY), Case No. 1:14-cv-00022-CFH.

Sheriff Mahar left office after declining to seek another term in 2015. 

Related legal case

Vibert v. City of Rensselaer