Jury sides with Athens, Tennessee, and city officials in First Amendment retaliation case

Plaintiff Glenn Whiting plans to appeal

Jurors on Wednesday found the city of Athens, Tennessee, and its city manager and attorney did not retaliate against a local man or violate his First Amendment rights for his speech at city meetings or in a sign painted on the side of a downtown building criticizing the city.

Jurors began deliberations at 5 p.m. Wednesday in the suit filed in U.S. District Court by Athens resident Glenn Whiting, who painted a sign on the side of a downtown building in 2019 criticizing city officials over the handling of a police investigation into a stolen car. The jury reached a verdict around 6 p.m.

Whiting contended in his suit that city officials condemned a building owned by his father-in-law and mother-in-law and ordered it demolished in retaliation for voicing his complaints at city meetings and in the painted message, according to the suit filed Oct. 15 against the city of Athens, City Attorney Chris Trew and City Manager C. Seth Sumner.

The trial before U.S. District Judge Travis R. McDonough began Monday in Chattanooga.

"We appreciate the jurors' decision in the case," the defendants' attorney, Dan Pilkington said in a telephone interview following the verdict. He declined further comment.

Whiting's not quitting yet.

"Obviously it's a disappointing verdict that we didn't think would happen," Whiting said Wednesday in a telephone interview after the verdict. "We believe there are major appealable issues, so we're not done."

Court documents have no image of the painted message at issue, Whiting provided a photo of it in January.

(READ MORE: Athens, Tennessee, city manager suspended for two weeks without pay)

It said: "Witness calls me to tell me about car being stolen out of our building. Called 911 was told wouldn't stop robbery until we prove ownership? Witness confronts thieves they ran for the car and took off. Athens P.D. still refuse to get involved? Car found damaged and radio stolen. APD refusing to talk to witnesses or fingerprint. Met with chief Couch and Seth Sumner who promised to investigate. Well over a year later, key witnesses still not questioned, Mayor Burris refuses to allow me to speak at city council about car. Is this the leadership we want? Time for change!!!"

The downtown building the sign was painted on - a different structure than the one that was ordered to be demolished - stands across the street from the McMinn County Courthouse facing Jackson Street, a main northbound thoroughfare in downtown Athens. Whiting later painted over the sign.

The building ordered by the city to be demolished is on Pope Street, although court records show it as being on both Pope Avenue and Pope Street.

A mistrial in the case was declared in January when jurors couldn't reach a consensus after deliberating for three days in the first trial of the case. Monday's retrial began before a jury eight including two alternates.

In closing statements, Whiting's attorney, Van Irion, told jurors Wednesday the retaliation his client alleged he suffered met the elements of a First Amendment retaliation case in involving constitutionally protected speech, an adverse action by the city by condemning and ordering the demolition of the family-owned building and proof his painted message and remarks at city meetings led the city to its actions against him.

Irion told jurors Sumner and Whiting are political enemies and Sumner used his position as city manager and his role as the effective judge in a condemnation hearing to retaliate against Whiting by ordering a 1948-era building to be condemned when another building in similar condition wasn't treated in the same way.

Codes officials testified earlier Wednesday about a visit May 20, 2019, based on a complaint when homeless people were found living there in deplorable conditions. There was a hole in the roof, signs of rodents, water damage from the roof all the way to the basement and rotting wood. The condemnation notice was sent out soon after, according to testimony.

Whiting's 88-year-old father-in-law had the impression from city officials his attendance at the condemnation hearing was not required, Irion told jurors, and Whiting hadn't been notified of the hearing. Irion contended Sumner used the situation to order the condemnation and demolition by taking action under a city ordinance that didn't seek to work with the property owners.

(READ MORE: Former Athens, Tennessee, police chief files suit after firing)

Irion said Sumner chose to take the more aggressive solution of condemnation and demolition because of the animosity between Whiting and the city and its officials, not because the owners were unwilling to work on the problems with the building.

He pointed to what he said were contradictory statements by some city officials and told jurors some city employees weren't truthful because they were afraid of Sumner, who is their boss, and they were afraid of losing their jobs.

The defendants' attorney, Dan Pilkington, told jurors the numerous photos entered into evidence of the family's building showed why nearby residents had complained to the city about the family's property.

Pilkington told jurors Whiting was not treated differently than anyone else.

The complaints were that the building was dangerous and that was the reason for the condemnation hearing, the notice and the demolition order, not retaliation, Pilkington said.

Pilkington said Whiting's father-in-law didn't show up at the condemnation hearing, and no one from the family approached city officials about a remedy or to contest the condemnation notice.

"The building met all the standards for condemnation," Pilkington told jurors.

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.