District Attorney Jay Gaither accused of sexual harassment

Jun. 27, 2014 @ 08:46 AM

District Attorney James C. Gaither is accused in a civil suit filed Thursday in U.S. District Court of sexually harassing a young assistant district attorney over a three-month period in 2013.

Whitney Nicole Shaffer, 27, of Hendersonville alleges among other things that Gaither, who is married, frequently came to her office and said inappropriate things, groped her, tried to kiss her, tried to force him to touch her and sent her numerous sexually suggestive text messages, a number of which are quoted in the lawsuit.

Gaither said late Thursday afternoon that Shaffer was fired for sleeping with a local defense attorney and is trying to retaliate against him.

"In April of 2013, Nikki Shaffer was cauight in bed with a local defense attorney who appeared regularly before her in court," Gaither said. "The attorney's wife brought this to my attention and I told Nikki she had to find another place to work. Since that time she has engaged in a campaign and vendetta against me. This is all an effort on her part to smear me."

Shaffer -- whose father is Rick Shaffer, the district attorney for Cleveland and Lincoln counties -- was hired starting Feb. 1, 2013, to work in the district courthouse in Hickory, not the county courthouse in Newton, where Gaither's office is.

The lawsuit said that Shaffer's predecessor in the Hickory office told her that Gaither came there only once every couple of months, but from the beginning Gaither arrived almost once or twice a week, usually late in the day, often appeared to have been drinking and made inappropriate and even threatening comments. He also told her throughout her time working there that he was "a very powerful man and was not afraid to use his power in favor of those who supported him and against those that crossed him," the suit said.

One afternoon in late April 2013, Gaither insisted on taking Shaffer to dinner, the suit said. "He drank heavily during the meal, and made several inappropriate sexual comments to her, demanding that she tell him about her sexual history," and asked whether "this would be a bad time to hit on (her)," it said.

After dinner, back in the car, Gaither groped Shaffer's thigh, the suit said, and after Shaffer protested Gaither stopped at a convenience store, bought a beer and drove to his lake house while drinking the beer. Outside the house, Gaither tried to kiss her and force her to touch him and tried to get her to go inside the house, but Shaffer refused, and Gaither eventually agreed to take her back to her office.

The text messages began in April 2013, the suit said. Among the texts quoted in the suit, and included in an exhibit attached to the suit, are, "I've laid hands on you and love the feel of your body," "What I would appreciate is some aggression from ur end," and "Nikki not sure if ur a study in contrasts or what ... no sex since August?"

The harassment got to the point that Shaffer was in fear for both her job and physical safety, the suit said. On May 5, 2013, she resigned, texting to Gaither that she left her resignation letter in her office.

The suit also alleges that since her resignation, Gaither has falsely told others, including at least two lawyers and a judge, that she was fired for misconduct.

The suit seeks punitive damages based on sexual harassment, a hostile work environment and actions that violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The lawsuit was not filed sooner because Shaffer filed a complaint Oct. 25 with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the lawsuit said. As the EEOC's 180-day period to issue a decision was expiring, her attorneys sought a "Right to Sue" letter from the U.S. Department of Justice. That letter was received June 11, allowing the lawsuit to be prepared.