A former employee of the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce has filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the chamber, alleging she was fired after questioning the selection process for a prestigious woman’s leadership award.
Autumn Outlaw, former marketing and communication director for the chamber, is seeking unspecified damages in her lawsuit, filed last week against the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce in Waco’s 414th State District Court.
Outlaw claims in her suit that Matt Meadors, chamber president and chief executive officer, trumped up a “bogus” reason to fire her in retaliation for her questioning policies and procedures used to select winners of the ATHENA Award, an annual leadership award given to a woman who makes significant contributions to the community and who serves as a mentor to others.
Waco attorneys Roy Barrett and John Hawkins, who represent the chamber of commerce, said Monday that the chamber believes it treated Outlaw fairly and it denies her claims.
The lawsuit, filed on Outlaw’s behalf by her attorney, David Dumas, alleges she was told the reason she was asked to resign or face termination was because of “poor judgment” she used on a social media post.
Outlaw said in an interview Monday that Meadors asked her to delete or to at least “soften” a post on her personal Facebook page in which she and other friends of a woman who recently learned she has cancer volunteered to help her pay off a lease for a booth at a Waco consignment shop that she arranged before her diagnosis. The woman tried to break her lease, but the shop owner would not allow it, Outlaw said.
In the post, Outlaw said she would pay a quarter of the lease and said, “That’s awful.”
“She had just been diagnosed with cancer and wanted to get out of the lease,” Outlaw said. “It wasn’t handled very well and was not very compassionate. So, on my own time, not wearing a name tag, not representing the chamber in any way, I went to the store and asked to pay for the full balance. I ended up paying a quarter and left.”
Meadors, her boss, called her into his office later that day. He slid a card from the business across the table to her and asked if she had gone there. She said she had, but in no way was she there representing the chamber.
“He said, ‘This is a bad situation. You just can’t go do that. Working with the chamber, you represent the chamber always.’ I told him this had nothing to do with the chamber, and I still don’t think what I said was out of line,” she said.
Meadors said he would “consult with legal,” Outlaw said, adding that the response was to “soften the situation.” When Outlaw insisted she did nothing wrong, Meadors gave her the option on Sept. 12 to resign or face termination from the job she had held since September 2017, she said.
When asked why, Meadors said, “you know,” but added it was because she used “poor judgment” in her Facebook post.
Meadors and Jason Powers, chamber director of finance and operations, both declined comment on the lawsuit on Monday, saying they could not discuss “personnel matters.”
Outlaw, however, insists that the Facebook post explanation given by Meadors is a ruse for the actual reason. On the same morning Meadors gave her that choice, Outlaw had written him an email expressing her concerns about the ATHENA Award selection process.
“I had never been written up,” she said. “I had never been given a warning. I had gotten a pretty substantial raise after the last evaluation I had, and my team and I had done great work,” she said.
“The same day I was called in, I sent an email asking about the process because last year, they did not follow the guidelines that were in place. I heard that from former employees and from members on the committee that there had been changes in the selection of the ATHENA Award. I believe that because I started inquiring about that, because I asked too many questions, that ultimately led to them wanting to fire me,” Outlaw said.
Outlaw said there are about 12 people on the ATHENA Award selection committee. They compile a list of finalists from a number of women nominated by members of the community.
“Last year, the top four were not the top four that the selection committee selected,” Outlaw said. “Matt took it over and I had concerns about the whole process. I wanted to make sure that it was ethical and that we were following the guidelines that were put in place. It all should be consistent and transparent,” Outlaw said.
The lawsuit also alleges that after Outlaw was fired, Meadors discussed “details of her termination” with others, including a friend of Outlaw’s husband, that “were untrue and damaging to her professional and personal reputation.”