Chattanooga city attorneys say wrongful firing lawsuit ignores material facts

The entrance to the Chattanooga City Hall is seen in this staff file photo taken from a third floor window of the City Hall Annex.

The city of Chattanooga has refuted claims of a wrongful firing alleged in a lawsuit by former City Council Clerk Sandra Freeman.

In December 2014, the city fired Freeman as part of a City Council staff restructuring, which divided the body in a 5-4 vote on Sept. 30 of the same year.

Freeman said in a November 2014 statement that she believed the restructuring process had been "manipulated by underlying political and personal motives on the parts of some."

In May 2015, she filed a lawsuit in Hamilton County Circuit Court, and the case since has moved to the U.S. District Court of Eastern Tennessee in Chattanooga. Freeman seeks all back pay since her termination, pay going forward and all legal and court fees associated with the case.

In June, city attorneys filed a reply to the plaintiff's response to a motion for a summary judgment against Freeman.

The reply stated that Freeman's case "ignores some material facts" and "cannot show that the reason that she was not selected for the Clerk position was anything other than the fact the she did not possess the minimum qualifications."

photo Carol Berz 2014

The City Council staff restructuring called for the clerk to have a bachelor's degree and municipal clerk certification. At the time of her firing, Freeman had neither qualification, although she stated she was working toward certification.

She served as the City Council clerk for 18 months before her dismissal. The restructuring process required Freeman and other council staff to vacate their positions, but allowed them to apply for the revamped jobs. Nicole Gwyn, who served on the staff and possessed those qualifications, was selected for the restructured clerk post.

City attorneys also challenged claims that Freeman's firing had anything to do with alleged conflicts with Councilman Chip Henderson and Councilwoman Carol Berz. Henderson served as council chairman and Berz served as the chairwoman of the body's human resources committee in 2014.

photo Chattanooga City Councilman Chip Henderson listens during a council meeting Tuesday, July 7, 2015, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Freeman's case cites a heated interaction with the two council members in the spring of that year when she sought a pay increase based on a Municipal Technical Advisory Service study.

She said Berz attempted to withhold the study from the rest of the council and Henderson pushed for the restructuring that resulted in her firing as payback for refusing "to remain silent concerning the practices of members of the Chattanooga City Council."

The city's reply said that no one involved in the restructuring process has testified that Freeman's perceived insubordination was a factor and it denied that Henderson and Berz orchestrated a "long series of events which ultimately led to [Freeman's] removal."

In November 2014, Councilman Moses Freeman, who is not related to Sandra Freeman, predicted the restructuring would come back haunt the council.

"One way or another we are going to be bitten by the decision we have made," Councilman Freeman said, who told Henderson he should be ashamed of himself.

"We went through a process that this council approved, and I think it speaks for itself," Henderson said at the time.

Berz and Councilmen Larry Grohn, Jerry Mitchell and Ken Smith supported Henderson's restructuring plan, according to human resources committee minutes.

The current case timeline calls for the matter to come before a judge on Aug. 9.

Contact staff writer Paul Leach at 423-757-6481 or Follow on Twitter @pleach_tfp.