When Guilford County Sheriff’s Department Executive Administrative Assistant Catherine Netter resigned from that position effective Monday, July 15, there were some quiet sighs of relief from county officials who had, for over a half a year, been concerned about Netter being hired for that top administrative job.
That’s because of what had occurred when she previously worked for the department under former Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes. At that time, Netter illegally accessed and copied confidential personnel files – a move that got her fired by Barnes.
In late November of last year, many Guilford County officials privately expressed great concern over legal liabilities that could result from having Netter as a top administrator with the department again – since it was known that she’d copied personnel documents and attempted to use them to back her claims of racial hiring and promotion practices in the department.
Netter, in her new position under Sheriff Danny Rogers, had much more power than before; but, despite that, she appeared frustrated by the limits of her actual job: “Executive Administrative Assistant.”
Though that was her title, recently Netter – as well as the Sheriff’s Department – began using something else for her title: “Executive Administrative Director and the Assistant to the Sheriff,” It was one that Netter and the Sherriff’s Department both adopted for her. It was, for instance, used on the department’s website and in press releases. Given her true power within the department, that incorrect title may have actually been more appropriate than her real one. However, that power she held, with added access, magnified the consternation of county leaders and county staff given the history of her employment with the Sheriff’s Department.
When it comes to Guilford County government – and any government in North Carolina – almost all records are public records that any citizen can request and view; however, personnel records – such as reports on job performance or disciplinary actions taken against an employee – are protected by state law and those records are guarded tightly by the county since the county can be sued if the information is made public.
Netter maintained when she worked with the department years ago – and maintains to this day – that Barnes used racially biased hiring methods and also, she claimed, that he and his department disciplined white officers less harshly than minority officers and showed favoritism to white officers when it came to promotions.
She argued that she was a victim of those practices and she attempted to use the personnel records of other employees to make her case. Once she did so, Barnes fired her.
She sued the Sheriff’s Department and that case eventually made it to the US Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which, in November 2018, upheld a lower court decision against Netter and in favor of the department.
That panel of Fourth Circuit judges ruled that, though employees have a right to gather evidence to make their case, “Netter’s unauthorized inspection and copying of the personnel files” had “violated a valid, generally-applicable state law.”
That court decision goes on to state: “Netter does not meaningfully dispute that these actions, standing alone, violated N.C. Gen. Stat. §153A–98(f), which establishes a Class 3 misdemeanor for ‘knowingly and willfully examin[ing] ․, remov[ing,] or copy[ing] any portion of a confidential personnel file’ without authorized access. We have already held in an opposition clause case that ‘illegal actions’ do not constitute “protected activity under Title VII.”
As a result of this and other considerations, Netter’s appeal failed and the court concluded: “She has not met her burden of proving that Sheriff Barnes terminated her employment because she engaged in protected activity.”
Netter had also sued the Sheriff’s Department with other claims as well with no success, according to Barnes.
So, late last year, when Rogers announced he was hiring Netter, many county officials were quietly concerned that the move put the county in dangerous territory. Rogers was, however, ultimately allowed to make the hire, but the news of Netter leaving the department is something that many county officials are privately very pleased about.