The employee who filed a sexual harassment charge against former Murray County Sole Commissioner David Ridley has filed a federal lawsuit against both the county and Ridley.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Rome, Ga., was filed after the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission provided the woman with a notice of right to sue.
The lawsuit, filed on May 23, alleges that several county employees knew about the alleged sexual harassment and did nothing to stop or report it. It also states that Murray County has an insufficient policy for employee complaints without appropriate review mechanisms and no way to bypass the sole commissioner if the commissioner is involved in the allegations.
The woman, employed by Murray County for 29 years, first filed an EEOC complaint against Ridley on March 16, alleging that Ridley forced her to commit sex acts and viewed pornography on her computer numerous times over the course of a year.
Ridley, who took office in January 2009, resigned less than two weeks after the woman’s original complaint was filed. He cited important family and business matters as the reason for his resignation.
He has not returned repeated phone messages in the months since his resignation.
The woman is not being identified in accordance with Chattanooga Times Free Press policy regarding alleged victims of sexual harassment.
According to the latest 16-page suit, at least one other Murray County employee was sexually harassed by Ridley. One of the women’s attorneys, Stuart James, said they have spoken briefly to the second woman but do not represent her.
The lawsuit asks for damages but does not list a dollar amount, and James declined to name a specific amount. He said the woman and attorneys involved in the case discussed a settlement before the lawsuit was filed, but could not reach an agreement.
“We are trying to focus on the merits of the lawsuit, not on a certain monetary figure,” James said. “We believe the facts of the case stand on their own.”
Ridley has hired well-known defense attorney Bobby Lee Cook to represent him. Cook, who is 84 and has practiced law for more than 60 years, has represented many high-profile cases, including Tennessee banker C.H. Butcher, accused of a federal bank-fraud scheme. Butcher pleaded guilty and served six years of a 20-year sentence.
Cook said Monday that he was retained two days ago and has not yet met with Ridley. Ridley maintains his innocence and will fight the charges, Cook said.
“I really know very little about the case. We are just getting started,” he said.
Murray County Attorney Greg Kinnamon has referred all questions to Ben Mathis, an Atlanta attorney specializing in labor and employment. Mathis represents Murray County’s insurance company in the suit.
Mathis did not return a phone message Monday.
The EEOC issued a right to sue notice to the woman on May 13, according to documents attached to the federal lawsuit.
The lawsuit reiterates the claims made in the EEOC complaint — that Ridley talked to the woman about sexual acts, reached up her skirt, put his hand down the front of her pants, asked her to perform sexual acts and rubbed his hand down her leg and over other parts of her body.
It says the Murray County human resources director and County Manager Tom Starnes were aware of Ridley’s actions but did nothing to stop them. The human resources director also was a victim of Ridley’s sexual harassment, the lawsuit says.
Starnes said that, because of the lawsuit, he cannot comment on the allegations. Starnes, who is running for the position of sole commissioner, said he hopes to issue a statement soon.
Christy Capehart, who is Murray’s human resources/payroll coordinator, said she assumes she is the person referenced in the lawsuit. She said she has been directed to refer all questions about the lawsuit to the attorneys for the county.
According to the lawsuit, Ridley used his position of power as sole commissioner to intimidate the woman and others who may have known about the harassment. He forced her against a door and kissed her while telling her he had control over her job and her future. At the time, the woman had cancer and needed insurance for her treatment, the lawsuit says.
“The actions of Commissioner Ridley are designed to suppress women in the office, to create an atmosphere of fear, to create an atmosphere of dominance and sexual dominance, and to prevent any complaints to any other outside source,” the lawsuit says.
In addition, the county government did not have an adequate system to report employee complaints, except to the human resources supervisor, the county manager or the county attorney, all of whom report to the sole commissioner, the lawsuit says.
“The system in place for Murray County has no checks and balances preventing a sole individual from imposing his or her will on how the county government is run and on what policies and procedures are in place,” the lawsuit says. “The sole commissioner form of government should be stricken and replaced by a form of government whereby a county mayor and county commissioner are elected ... to protect the rights of the citizenry of Murray County as well as the rights of those who work for the County.
Fifteen people are running in the specially called election to replace Ridley, scheduled for June 21.
Mariann Martin covers healthcare in Chattanooga and the surrounding region. She joined the Times Free Press in February 2011, after covering crime and courts for the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun for two years. Mariann was born in Indiana, but grew up in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Belize. She graduated from Union University in 2005 with degrees in English and history and has master’s degrees in international relations and history from the University of Toronto. While attending Union, ...