A former 25-year employee of the city of Dunlap, Tennessee is suing the town and its mayor in federal court over allegations that he was fired from his job over his political activities during the city's May 2017 mayoral election.
Shawn Cordell, who was working as a foreman in the Dunlap sewer department last May, is seeking $1.5 million for compensatory and emotional damages and $1.5 million in punitive damages over his firing less than a week after the 2017 elections in which his sister-in-law was an opponent of the incumbent mayor who won the election, according to Cordell's federal complaint filed May 4 in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga.
Cordell claims incumbent Dunlap Mayor Dwain Land fired him in retaliation for his political campaigning for his sister-in-law, Rhonda Summers, who was one of three candidates running for Dunlap mayor in 2017. The firing, just days after the election, violated Cordell's First Amendment rights to free speech, he contends in the suit.
Cordell's attorney, Chattanooga lawyer Roger D. Layne, on Tuesday declined to comment on the case, citing federal court rules that restrict case discussion. Land on Tuesday also declined comment, citing the available court record.
In a statement to the local newspaper, however, Land said, "the allegations in the complaint are unfounded and we believe that we will prevail in litigation," he told the Dunlap Tribune. "As mayor of the city, I did terminate Mr. Cordell's employment in 2017, but I had a justifiable basis to do so, and this termination had nothing to do with the election in which I prevailed."
Cordell had been working for the sewer department since August 1992 and had never been subjected to any disciplinary actions, according to the complaint. Cordell also contended that "his performance evaluations at all times assessed his job performance as above standard and outstanding," the complaint states.
Land and the city, however, denied Cordell's statements about his performance in the answer to the complaint filed on June 20, but did not offer any other statements about his performance.
In the 2017 city elections, Land, Summers and Jennifer Greer were the three candidates seeking the mayor's post. Land was re-elected to his seat. Cordell says in the complaint that he made Land aware of his link to Summers and that he planned to campaign for her during his personal time away from work. Land assured Cordell "that he would not seek reprisal for the contested mayoral race," according to both the complaint and the defendants' response.
Cordell said his 25-year employment with the city of Dunlap ended five days after the election "by the defendant falsely claiming that plaintiff was 'unable to work well with co-employees,'" the suit states.
Land admits to no reason for the firing in court records and denies that Cordell was fired on "false claims or false pretenses." The answer otherwise denies any wrongdoing on Land's or the city's part.
The defendants also contend Land is "entitled to qualified immunity" as mayor, and the city "relies upon the defense of common law and sovereign immunity" under the Tennessee Tort Liability Act, records state.
Land and the city call for the matter to be dismissed and for the court to award all attorneys' fees and other costs to the defendants.
According to a scheduling order in federal court records, a jury trial in the case is set for 9 a.m. on Nov. 19, 2019, in Knoxville.
Contact staff writer Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.