Jury rules Chattanooga failed to give officers promised raises, maintain fair conditions

Jury rules Chattanooga failed to give officers promised raises, maintain fair conditions

August 26th, 2016 by Shelly Bradbury in Local Regional News

A Hamilton County jury awarded more than $560,000 in damages to 25 police officers on Thursday after finding that the city of Chattanooga failed to give the officers promised raises and failed to maintain fair conditions of employment.

The jury rejected the officers' claim that the city discriminated against them because of their age. The verdict in the lawsuit, which was filed in 2012, came after a weeklong trial.

Officers were collectively awarded $562,953 in back pay for the time that they worked without receiving the raises, which the city laid out in a 2010 document. Attorneys Stevie Phillips and Janie Parks Varnell represented the officers, while Phil Noblett and Keith Reisman argued for the city.

"Six years ago the city made [these police] a promise — a promise to give them pay raises if they continued working," Phillips said after the verdict. "They did [keep working]. But the city never made good on that promise. Today, the jury awarded them what they had already earned."

The case stemmed from a years-long dispute about the police department's pay policies, which for about seven years allowed recently hired police officers to earn higher salaries than their supervisors.

In 2014, Mayor Andy Berke revamped the police pay structure to try to level the inequities. Although some police union leaders called then for the lawsuit to be settled in the wake of Berke's fix, the case continued to trial last week in Hamilton County Chancery Court.

At the center of the case was a one-page document that was sent out to police personnel in 2010. The document laid out changes to police salaries. While the city contended that the document was only a one-time pay adjustment, the officers said the document promised to give police future raises as they gained experience.

The jury deliberated for about three hours before agreeing with the police, who never received the raises listed in the 2010 document. The back pay awarded to each officer ranged from about $11,000 to about $58,000.

"I'm still shocked that this is what it took," said Lt. Craig Joel, who helped lead the effort for years. "This should never have had to go to court in any administration."

He added that he was thrilled with the verdict.

City attorney Wade Hinton wouldn't say Thursday whether the city plans to appeal the jury's decision.

"We're obviously disappointed with the outcome," Hinton said. "We're going to take some time to review all our options with our clients."

In addition to the issue of promised raises, the police officers who sued also claimed that a particular career development program in the police department was discriminatory because it was only open to officers, not to ranking supervisors. They said the program created age discrimination because officers were, as a whole, younger than the ranking police personnel who could not participate in the program.

The jury rejected that argument and ruled in the city's favor that the program did not constitute age discrimination.

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or sbradbury@timesfreepress.com with tips or story ideas. Follow @ShellyBradbury.


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