published Thursday, April 12th, 2012

7 former Erlanger police officers sue hospital

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    Erlanger Hospital is located on 3rd Street in Chattanooga.
    Photo by Angela Lewis /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Seven former Erlanger hospital police officers have filed a lawsuit alleging they were fired for their age or race and against the recommendations of a previous security assessment of the hospital.

The Hamilton County Circuit Court lawsuit, filed April 5, says the men, ranging in age from 45 to 67, were fired a year ago while the hospital was replacing its police department with contracted workers from Walden Security, a Chattanooga-based company.

The plaintiffs -- Jerry Lawrence, 56; Gary Talley, 49; Harold Holliday, 67; Kenneth Cookston, 59; Ronald Capetz, 64; Gary Avans, 66 -- claim age discrimination in the April 2011 firings.

Rodney Patton, 45, claims race discrimination, but his race was not mentioned in the lawsuit.

In an email statement, Erlanger spokeswoman Pat Charles said the officers were not fired and had opportunities to apply for work with Walden Security at the hospital. Officers not listed in the lawsuit continue to work at the hospital, under Walden, she wrote.

One exhibit filed with the lawsuit is a private security assessment of Erlanger properties, which details recommendations for better control of entrance points and assesses the security staff.

The report, dated Feb. 5, 2010, and prepared by Security Assessments International Inc., based in Durham, N.C., also advises Erlanger on its police department.

The report states the department had done an "excellent job" protecting the hospital's staff, patients and visitors, but it was "staffed below industry standards for the size, location and criminal demographics" of the hospital.

The report goes on to recommend that Erlanger retain a police department and increase staffing at the main hospital, Erlanger East and Southside and the Erlanger property on Dodson Avenue.

The plaintiffs' attorney, Stuart James, said he was puzzled by Erlanger's actions against his clients.

"What bothers me about this whole case is that security survey," he said Wednesday. "Why did they hire Walden Security and replace all these guys who were otherwise qualified?"

Another claim within the lawsuit -- that officers were only being paid for 71/2 hours per shift and not allowed breaks -- should be easily provable, he added.

"I believe it's a really good claim," James said.

The lawsuit names Gregg Gentry, 54, then-senior vice president of human resources, and Charlesetta Woodard Thompson, 63, then-assistant to the Erlanger's chief executive and operating officers. No specific damages were requested but will be added to the lawsuit later.

Gentry is now Erlanger's chief administrative officer, and Thompson is now Erlanger's interim president and chief executive officer.

Erlanger's board of trustees voted unanimously to replace the police department with Walden in March 2011, and Walden took over in May 2011, Charles wrote. The hospital moved to using a private security firm as a commitment to the safety and security of the hospital, she said.

Walden Security services cost Erlanger $2.5 million annually, while the former department cost "in excess of $2 million," Charles wrote.

Another factor in the move to private security was that neither Chattanooga nor Hamilton County would continue to certify Erlanger police officers, Charles wrote.

The report's author explicitly advises that, in cases where hospitals choose to do this, "the quality of the replacement officers may not be up to the hospital's standards."

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about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

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