City of Chattanooga in court over firing of former soldier

City of Chattanooga in court over firing of former soldier

September 13th, 2011 by Todd South in News

Former Police Chief Freeman Cooper walks out of the U.S. District Court building after he testified Monday.

Photo by Jenna Walker/Times Free Press.

A $1.5 million federal lawsuit against Chattanooga in which a former police officer claims he was wrongfully fired for having post traumatic stress disorder went to trial Monday.

Plaintiff Mickel Hoback, an officer with the city from 2000 until 2009, testified late in the day in U.S. District Court. City Attorney Crystal Freiberg will continue cross-examining him this morning.

Hoback alleges Chattanooga violated his civil rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act by firing him for having PTSD. He is suing to get his job back with back pay and benefits and $1.5 million for "humiliation and embarrassment, invasion of privacy, emotional pain and suffering, mental anguish."

After a one-year combat deployment to Iraq, Hoback returned to work at the Chattanooga Police Department in 2006 and was named officer of the year in 2007. He was fired two years later when then-Police Chief Freeman Cooper learned that he had PTSD.

The original federal complaint said Cooper had fired Hoback in retaliation for Hoback's comments to the media in 2008 regarding take-home patrol car changes, but that issue was dropped when the lawsuit was amended.

In February, the Hamilton County Chancery Court ordered Chattanooga to return Hoback to his job with back pay. The results of that ruling await an appeal and the outcome of this trial.

Plaintiffs can pursue lawsuits concurrently in both state and federal courts for the same issue.

The 11-member federal jury warmed to Hoback late Monday afternoon, chuckling at some of his responses to Freiberg's questions.

She asked about comments he made during counseling sessions in 2008 and 2009 when he discussed not remembering things, how much alcohol he drank off duty, what medications he took related to his PTSD, and if his counselor had told him to find other work.

Hoback testified he thought any memory loss was due to getting older, that he took a small dose of lithium to sleep and he and his counselor talked briefly about what other, possibly less stressful, work he might consider.

Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd rides away after testifying Monday at the U.S. District courthouse in Chattanooga.

Photo by Jenna Walker/Times Free Press.

He told his counselor that working as a school resource officer or a history teacher seemed interesting, "but nobody told me to change my occupation."

"You didn't think that would be less stressful?" Freiberg asked.

"Being a teacher?" Hoback replied.

At that comment, many on the jury laughed and one woman shook her head.

During earlier testimony, Phillip Lawrence, one of Hoback's two lawyers, asked him if his military service was worth it, considering it may have caused him to lose his job.

"That's kind of a difficult question," Hoback said. "I think that if I get my job back I would, but if not, I think it was too high a price to pay."

Hoback deployed to Iraq from 2004 to 2005 with the 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment of the Tennessee Army National Guard, then returned to the Chattanooga police. After his deployment, Hoback started seeing a counselor at the Chattanooga Vet Center and was diagnosed with PTSD. Counselors said he was improving with treatment, court records show.

Cooper ordered him to undergo a mental evaluation with a city-contracted psychiatrist, who deemed him unfit for duty after a few hours of testing and interviews.

Hoback saw two other doctors after that evaluation, both of whom said he could return to duty.

Cooper told Hoback he could no longer work as a police officer, citing Tennessee law that barred anyone diagnosed with a mental disorder as ineligible for police work.

But the state law was overruled by federal law and the state of Tennessee agreed to the new law in 2003, six years before Hoback's firing.

Since being fired, Hoback has scraped by on part-time gas station security work and filling in on open shifts at the Graysville Police Department. He's earned about $700 so far this year from Graysville, he testified.

Hoback has been unable to pay electricity bills, forcing him to have his daughter stay with her grandparents when the weather is either too hot or too cold at his Bradley County home, he testified.

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