Fired Chattanooga police officer gets new hearing on request for job back

Fired Chattanooga police officer gets new hearing on request for job back

April 8th, 2013 by Todd South in Local Regional News

Former Chattanoooga Police officer Mickel Hoback, right, leaves the Joel W. Solomon Federal Court with one of his attorneys, Michael Richardson in this 2011 file photo.

Photo by Patrick Smith /Times Free Press.

A former Chattanooga Police Department officer could find out today whether he will get back the job he lost in 2009.

Three City Council members will meet and hear from Mickel Hoback's lawyers and city attorneys and then decide whether to reinstate the former officer and 2007 Officer of the Year.

If he is rehired, a lengthy series of appeals now in legal limbo will end, possibling saving the city a few hundred thousand dollars.

But if not, those appeals will drag on. Hoback stands to collect $680,000 a jury awarded him at the end of a 2011 trial.

Hoback was hired by the police department in 2000 and served a one-year combat deployment to Iraq before returning to the force in 2006. Hoback worked with a counselor at the local Vet Center for nearly two years on post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms and was prescribed lithium. On April 15, 2009, Hoback went to the center to request a change in his medication from his counselor at the time.

The counselor sent him to the local Veterans Administration clinic, where a doctor determined that Hoback was a suicide risk. Hoback denies he was ever suicidal.

He left the clinic, returned to the center and told his counselor that the doctor's assessment was wrong. To satisfy all involved, his counselor sent him to the VA outpatient clinic in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

The VA doctor had reported to police that Hoback was a suicide risk and had left the clinic. That call triggered alarm at the police department. Then-Chief Freeman Cooper temporarily suspended Hoback and ordered him to report back once he finished at the VA.

A psychiatrist at the Murfreesboro clinic released Hoback after a one-night evaluation and wrote a letter stating he could return to police duties and was not a suicide risk.

Under Cooper's direction, a city-hired psychologist interviewed Hoback and found him "unfit for duty" and said he "had a pattern of making excuses or explaining away incidents."

Cooper fired Hoback in July 2009.

Hoback appealed the decision to the City Council. In 2009, Councilmen Pam Ladd, Sally Robinson and Andraé McGary reviewed his appeal. Ladd and Robinson voted against reinstating Hoback; McGary voted for his reinstatement.

That hearing appeal led first to a state court lawsuit, which then was sent to federal court and resulted in a favorable jury verdict for Hoback.

In the trial, three psychologists testified that Hoback had embellished or exaggerated portions of his mental health problems to his counselor in an attempt to increase his VA disability benefits.

The courts have ordered that the city again hear arguments on Hoback's reinstatement.

Two of the same three council members will sit on the panel today -- McGary and Robinson. Ladd was asked by Hoback's attorneys to be removed because she was involved in mediation efforts related to the court case.

Councilwoman Carol Berz will sit on the panel in Ladd's place.

Ladd said Friday that she agreed she should step aside to avoid any appearance of unfairness.

The city no longer uses the panel of three council members to resolve employee disputes. Now an administrative law judge hears the cases.

But, Ladd said, to maintain fairness, both sides agreed to conduct the new hearing under as similar circumstances as there were in 2009.

Michael Richardson, one of Hoback's attorneys, said last week that no new evidence will be presented today. Attorneys simply will argue the facts of the case and see if the council reinstates Hoback.

Richardson and co-counsel Phillip Lawrence first sought $1.5 million for Hoback, who has worked part time for an area law enforcement agency.

The federal jury awarded Hoback $130,000 in back pay, $330,000 in front pay and $250,000 for emotional suffering. Because of the ongoing appeals, the money has yet to be paid. If Hoback is reinstated, he'll likely keep the back pay, but the future pay and other portions may be in question.

"All Mickel ever really wanted was his job back," Richardson said.

Contact staff writer Todd South at tsouth@timesfree or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @tsouthCTFP.