Former Chattanooga police officer's suit goes to jury

Former Chattanooga police officer's suit goes to jury

September 15th, 2011 by Todd South in News

A federal jury will decide whether Chattanooga discriminated against a former police officer who was deemed unfit for duty because of post-traumatic stress disorder and fired.

Mickel Hoback, a nine-year veteran of the Chattanooga Police Department, is suing to get his job back with back pay and benefits. He's also asking for $1.5 million in damages related to his July 21, 2009, firing.

Attorneys for both sides wrapped up their arguments late Wednesday, the third day of the trial.

City Attorney Phillip Noblett told the jury that then Police Chief Freeman Cooper had to decide if Hoback was a danger to himself or others. Cooper had to rely on city-hired psychologist Dr. Donald Brookshire's evaluation that Hoback was "unfit for duty," Noblett said.

Cooper ultimately fired Hoback.

Hoback's attorneys argued that Chattanooga violated the federal Americans with Disabilities Act when he was fired because he had PTSD.

Michael Richardson, one of Hoback's two attorneys, challenged Brookshire's evaluation and Cooper's subsequent decision when Brookshire testified Wednesday.

Richardson criticized Brookshire for relying on the notes of Hoback's counselor at the Chattanooga Vet Center, Michael Bearden, but not talking with Bearden about his nearly two years of work with Hoback.

Cooper also had to obey a Tennessee law stating that, in order to be certified to serve, officers must be free of mental health problems that would affect their duties.

But in 2003, a federal order said the state law violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. That same year, six years before Hoback was fired, the Tennessee attorney general agreed with the federal order and said that portion of the law would not be enforced anymore.

The build-up to the firing began April 14, 2009. Hoback, an Iraq war veteran, complained to Bearden about problems with a lithium prescription. Bearden referred him to the Veterans Administration clinic, where a psychiatrist could evaluate the medication.

At the clinic, Dr. Estella Acosta briefly interviewed Hoback and decided he was a suicide risk. She ordered that he be involuntarily committed to the VA Hospital in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

Hoback went back to Bearden, who called Acosta to tell her that Hoback was not a suicide risk and there had been a misunderstanding.

Acosta would not relent, so Bearden advised Hoback to drive himself to Murfreesboro. The Murfreesboro hospital released Hoback the next day, saying he was not a suicide risk. A hospital psychiatrist wrote a letter stating that Hoback was capable of returning to previous activities.

On Wednesday, Richardson also questioned why Brookshire never spoke with nor read notes from Acosta.

Brookshire agreed that he had not spoken with either Bearden or Acosta, but that it wasn't necessary because he performed his own tests and found also that Hoback "had a pattern of making excuses or explaining away incidents."

Brookshire testified that inconsistencies in what Hoback said to him in three meetings made it difficult to evaluate him.

Two other counselors who evaluated Hoback both found him fit for duty, one with conditions, the other without. Both said Hoback had exaggerated or embellished some of his mental health claims to Bearden, possibly to maintain or increase his disability benefit.

During his testimony Monday, Hoback said he exaggerated one incident to Bearden but added that portions of Bearden's notes describing their counseling sessions were taken out of context.