Retired judge to preside over dog pound lawsuit

LISBON — A retired Stark County Common Pleas Court judge will preside over the lawsuit filed by a former Columbiana County Dog Pound employee who says she was wrongly fired after alerting authorities about another worker who has since been indicted on theft charges.

Judge Lee Sinclair, who retired at the end of 2012 following a lengthy career as judge, was assigned to the Brenda Austin case last week by the Ohio Supreme Court. The lawsuit names the dog pound, the dog warden and county commissioners as defendants.

Austin’s lawsuit had been assigned originally to former county Common Pleas Court Judge C. Ashley Pike, who lost in his re-election bid last year. New Judge Megan Bickerton inherited the case upon taking office in January but later requested a visiting judge be assigned because she is “familiar and friends” with some of the defendants.

Austin, who worked at the dog pound when the dog warden was Dawn Croft, said she expressed her concerns about pound operations to Commissioner Mike Hallek on four different occasions. In January 2016, Austin said she discovered Croft was embezzling cash donations made to the pound but this time took her information directly to the county prosecutor’s office.

Croft was fired in May 2016 and later indicted for stealing $26,000 from the dog pound, money laundering and tampering with evidence. She is currently scheduled to go on trial May 1.

Halleck has denied that Austin was fired for her role in bringing Croft’s alleged misdeeds to light. Austin was told in October she was being laid off immediately due to lack of work.

Judge Sinclair will likely set a trial date when he holds his first hearing. Austin’s lawsuit is seeking $25,000-plus in damages.