published Thursday, November 24th, 2011

Most counts may be dropped in Murray County sex lawsuit

A federal judge has recommended that five out of six counts in a sexual harassment lawsuit against Murray County be dropped.

The move would mean the amount of money the county could be required to pay the woman who filed the lawsuit is limited to less than $200,000.

The report and recommendation, filed by U.S. Magistrate Judge Walter Johnson last week, does not affect the suit against former Murray County sole commissioner David Ridley.

The woman, a county employee for 29 years, filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint in March. After receiving a right to sue from the commission in May, she filed a federal lawsuit against the county and Ridley.

Both the complaint and the lawsuit allege Ridley sexually harassed the woman over the course of a year. Ridley resigned soon after the EEOC complaint was filed.

Ben Mathis, the lawyer representing Murray County in the lawsuit, had filed motions to dismiss several counts of the complaint and requested a partial judgment on other counts.

Johnson granted some of the motions, which included dropping charges of intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligence, negligent retention and supervision of Ridley by Murray County, failure by the county to stop the sexual assault and deprivation of the woman's constitutional rights.

The remaining count charges the county with allowing a hostile work environment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Under federal law, the county's liability for such a lawsuit is capped at $200,000.

In his conclusion, Johnson wrote, "Given the above recommendations, if no objections are filed or any objections filed are overruled by the District Court, then the only count remaining for adjudication against Murray County is Count Two (Title VII). This non-final report and recommendation has no impact on plaintiff's claims against Mr. Ridley."

Mathis said they were pleased with the judge's recommendation.

"The claims [against Murray County] were frivolous, a waste of time and money," Mathis said. "This narrows the issue; everyone knows what is in dispute."

McCracken Poston, one of the lawyers for the woman, said they expected some of the counts against the county to be dismissed. The dismissal does not diminish the claims against Ridley, he said.

"His conduct was simply egregious," Poston said.

The various parties involved in the suit have been involved in mediation to try to reach a settlement since the lawsuit was filed but had not reached a settlement by late Wednesday afternoon.

Attorneys have declined to say how much money has been discussed for a settlement.

Murray County Manager Tom Starnes has said the woman's attorneys asked for $1.3 million before they filed the lawsuit.

about Mariann Martin...

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, ...

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