Lawyers say Chattanooga withheld documents

Lawyers say Chattanooga withheld documents

March 13th, 2014 by Todd South in Local Regional News

Chattanooga City Hall

Photo by Jake Daniels/Times Free Press.

Former Chattanooga General Services Director Paul Page

Photo by WRCB-TV Channel 3 /Times Free Press.

Lana Sutton talks during a meeting of the Chattanooga Neighborhood Association Council in this file photo.

Photo by Angela Lewis/Times Free Press.

Lawyers for a former Chattanooga part-time employee who has sued the city, alleging sexual harassment by a former department head, argued with a city attorney over whether the city has withheld records requested in the case.

Wednesday's hearing was a prelude to a mediation meeting Friday, which could result in a private settlement and not a trial that would be open to the public.

Lana Sutton sued the city for $350,000 in 2012, alleging that General Services Director Paul Page sexually harassed her on multiple occasions while she worked at the city's wellness center from 2007 until 2011.

Court records filed in the employment discrimination suit reveal new details about Sutton's claims.

Sutton claims that Page told her he wanted "me to get naked in the back" with him. She alleges Page said she was "in trouble for 'not dressing sexy enough'" and he "wanted to put a bed in the back room so that they could 'relax in there.'"

Page retired from his city job in October 2011, shortly after a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint involving Sutton and an unnamed female city employee who made similar allegations was made public.

The EEOC investigation found Page had harassed Sutton and that the city had retaliated against Sutton by moving her from the downtown facility to another city gym in Warner Park.

Sutton claims that while at the Warner Park facility she was "warned that if in effect she did not keep quiet that the (then) Mayor (Ron Littlefield) could have some of the prisoners assault or even murder her," according to court documents.

Littlefield's then-spokesman Richard Beeland told the Times Free Press at the time of the lawsuit filing that the allegations were "absurd and absolutely not true."

In his response to Sutton's original complaint, Reisman wrote that Sutton had requested to work at the Warner Park location for extra hours at the same time she worked downtown. He said she refused further work assignments downtown in 2009 and resigned in 2011.

Sutton's supervisor, Jennifer Lass Lowry, told attorneys in her deposition that she'd never witnessed Page harassing Sutton and she didn't believe Sutton's allegations.

In a previous interview and in legal depositions Page, 72, has denied the allegations.

As the case has headed to trial, Sutton's attorney Harry Burnette said his client has been frustrated while trying to get information from the city and filed her own open records request, specifically asking for emails related to her lawsuit.

Burnette said the response that Sutton received to her open records request did not include documents they knew to exist and emails they suspect are on the city's server.

"It didn't even have all of the documents we had," Eric Burnette, another of Sutton's attorneys, said.

He then cited a February Tennessee Court of Appeals decision that ordered Chattanooga to pay $70,000 in attorney's fees related to a 2011 open records lawsuit in which the city had failed to provide records that had been requested.

Harry and Eric Burnette met with assistant city attorney Keith Reisman in U.S. Magistrate Judge Bill Carter's chambers Wednesday after Reisman had requested the meeting, citing a mass email sent by Sutton in February to more than 400 city employees.

In the email, Reisman said, Sutton asked if any city employee had any evidence or had witnessed Page sexually harass her while she worked at the city's downtown wellness center.

Harry Burnette told Carter that he had asked Sutton to reach out to other employees but not with a mass email.

"I never dreamed that she would send a blast email to every employee at the city," Burnette said.

Reisman told the judge that Sutton's mass email came after the discovery deadline in the case, which is scheduled for trial on May 20.

The discovery period is when attorneys for parties in a lawsuit exchange information ahead of a trial.

The lawyers bantered back and forth in Wednesday's meeting. Reisman wanted to know if anyone who had replied to Sutton's email would be called to testify.

He told the judge that Harry Burnette had said previously he wouldn't provide names because he wasn't going to call the email respondents as witnesses unless to challenge something the city put forward in the trial. He also worried that the city might retaliate against people who were supporting Sutton.

"The only reason they might testify at trial is if (the city) comes in with some fairy tale story of what happened," Harry Burnette told Carter.

Reisman countered that characterization, saying the city's version of events has been consistent since the beginning -- there wasn't any sexual harassment.

But Harry Burnette noted in the hearing that the sexual harassment claim was the only claim that the city's attorneys did not ask for a summary judgment on in their recent filings.

"The evidence is so strong on sexual harassment (the city) didn't even file a motion for summary judgment on sexual harassment," Harry Burnette said.

Reisman responded that there is an absolute disagreement on the facts, meaning there's no need to file such a request.

Burnette closed the conversation simply: "We say it happened. They say it didn't happen."

Contact staff writer Todd South at tsouth@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6437. Follow him on Twitter @tsouthCTFP.