published Thursday, November 1st, 2012

Red Bank settles 2 suits; 3 remain

The Red Bank City Commission conducts business.
The Red Bank City Commission conducts business.
Photo by WRCB-TV Channel 3 /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

RED BANK LAWSUITS

The city is still battling three lawsuits filed by current or former police department personnel.

* Larry Sneed

Former police Chief Larry Sneed sued the city, three commissioners and a former city manager, after being fired in 2010. Sneed claimed that his firing was retaliatory, and that commissioners conspired with officers and the city manager to have him terminated, breaking open meetings laws in the process. Red Bank's attorneys have appealed to the state, questioning Sneed's right to a jury trial. Once that question is answered, trial could start in the spring.

* Isaac Cooper

Officer Isaac Cooper sued the city in August 2011, claiming race and age-related discrimination. Cooper, a 36-year police veteran, also alleged that he was passed over for promotions because he spoke against alleged misconduct by Sneed in 2010. Discovery is ongoing and depositions are set to begin soon.

* Stephen Satterwhite

Officer Stephen Satterwhite filed a federal lawsuit in November 2011 claiming he was penalized and demoted because of his age and for speaking out against Sneed in 2010. Discovery is ongoing and depositions are set to begin soon.

Red Bank commissioners have settled two lawsuits in federal court, saying they are willing to spend more than $43,000 in taxpayer money to close a bitter and turbulent chapter for the city and police department.

But three more police-related lawsuits are expected to drag on well into 2013, attorneys say.

Five lawsuits were filed against Red Bank between 2010 and 2011 in the wake of the controversial firing of Chief Larry Sneed -- including a $1.5 million suit filed by Sneed himself.

The commission voted 3-1 on Tuesday to settle suits filed in August 2010 by former police officers Bradley Hanon and Rebecca Chauncey Morgan.

Hanon sued for $1.5 million on grounds of "defamation, humiliation and mental anguish" after he said he exposed several alleged incidents of police misconduct and spoke out against Sneed.

The settlement in the Hanon case is for $36,000, with about $26,500 from Red Bank taxpayers and the rest from Tennessee Municipal League funds, a pool into which the city pays.

Morgan had sued for $1 million, claiming she was suspended without pay in retaliation for trying to stop an arrest made outside Red Bank's jurisdiction. The $21,000 settlement will include about $16,500 from Red Bank taxpayers.

Chauncey and Hanon -- who no longer work at the department -- were represented by attorney Donna Mikel.

On Wednesday, Mikel said the suits resulted from an "unfortunate incident" that "caused a lot of problems for a lot of people."

"We're hopeful that the new administration in Red Bank will make it a better place to work," she said.

Sneed was replaced in 2010 by Chief Tim Christol. Former City Manager Chris Dorsey, who fired Sneed, was fired by Red Bank commissioners last October. A new city manager is set to begin work in December.

Mikel's firm also is handling two ongoing cases filed by police officers against Red Bank.

Commissioner Ruth Jeno was the lone vote against settling the Hanon and Morgan cases. She said they were "without merit" and should have been fought, even just for the sake of setting precedent.

"It makes us seem like we're an easy target, and that anyone can sue for whatever reason and get money out of it," she said.

Mayor Monty Millard was absent.

Red Bank City Attorney Arnold Stulce said the lawsuits had "been worked and explored for two years, and it was just time for them to be over with."

Stulce, who has been the city attorney for more than 30 years, said he has never had to juggle so many cases for the city at once.

Even if the city won the lawsuits, they would likely be out tens of thousands of dollars in legal costs, he said. Attorneys began negotiating the settlement several months ago, he said.

"Deciding to settle makes the most sense economically," he said.

Vice Mayor John Roberts, who was not on the commission when the drama in the police department erupted, said he didn't like voting to settle, but felt it was the only viable option to get "all this mess behind us."

"I'm upset, honestly," he said. "We should never have gotten sued like this in the first place."

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