County responds to lawsuit on code compliance officer



Columbia County has filed a response to a woman’s lawsuit against the county and a former code compliance officer who admitted entering her Martinez home without permission.

Erica Masters, who now lives in the Atlanta area, filed the suit Nov. 6 in Columbia County State Court and is seeking $300,000, plus court costs, for physical and emotional distress she sustained when Jimmy Vowell entered her unlocked home July 2.

Attorneys for the county filed a response Dec. 7, denying the allegations except to admit that Vowell violated county employee policy by entering her home. The response also denies that Masters was injured and asserts she is not entitled to any relief.

Masters’ claims also are barred by her failure to mitigate damages, according to the response, without specifying what form that mitigation would take.

Vowell, who was fired shortly after the incident, was at Masters’ home to deliver a violation notice stemming from a neighbor’s complaint that her yard was unkempt and overgrown.

He said at the time that he entered the home only after knocking repeatedly and calling out, and that he smelled something from inside when the unlocked door swung open.

Masters’ home had a surveillance system, and a video of the incident showed Vowell walking through the home and standing in her bedroom doorway. She said that she awakened and found Vowell talking to her from the hall and that he retreated to her living room and waited there while she dressed.

After Vowell delivered the county ordinance violation notice, he left the home and Masters tried to call his supervisor but was unable to reach anyone. She then called 911, and the dispatcher took a message.

County Administrator Scott Johnson suspended Vowell and asked the sheriff’s office to investigate. An investigator interviewed Masters and Vowell and reviewed the surveillance footage. Vowell was not charged because there was no criminal intent, officials said, but he was fired because the entry was a violation of department policy.

Vowell appealed his termination to the county’s Civil Service board, which determined the firing was “too excessive.”

On Nov. 20, the Columbia County Commission rejected a recommendation to rehire Vowell.

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