Barring a reversal by the Tennessee Supreme Court, Coffee County taxpayers will foot the bill in an estimated $1 million circuit court lawsuit for violation of a fired county employee's rights under the Tennessee Public Employee Political Freedom Act.
The jury in the two-day January 2017 trial in a suit filed by former county employee Melinda Keeling against Coffee County and county building codes department head Glenn Darden found that Darden unlawfully discriminated against Keeling as her supervisor and that he developed a codes department budget that eliminated her position, according to documents in the Tennessee Court of Appeals in Nashville. The court also found that the elimination of Keeling's position was "a continued act of discrimination" that made consideration of equitable damages appropriate.
The original trial court verdict awarded damages and front and back pay totaling about $490,000, but in the county's appeal, damages increased substantially.
According to Keeling's lawyer, that total now exceeds $1 million and is increasing.
The act states: "No public employee shall be prohibited from communicating with an elected public official for any job-related purpose whatsoever." Any damages awarded under the act are automatically tripled.
In the suit, Keeling — who worked for the County Codes and Safety Department from 2006-2010 — claimed Darden fired her in retaliation for her going to then-County Mayor David Pennington in November 2009 to complain about services to the public in Darden's department. Keeling contends that members of the public frequently complained about Darden's lack of availability, first as a codes inspector, then as head of the department after he was appointed to that post, appeals court records state.
After the 2017 verdict favoring Keeling, Coffee County first filed a motion for a new trial and then appealed the 2017 trial court's decision, arguing that the court was wrong to exclude findings of a neutral committee appointed by the mayor and in awarding damages to Keeling on grounds that the jury wasn't asked by the court to make a finding that her firing resulted from a violation of the Public Employee Political Freedom Act in awarding damages.
Keeling also appealed, arguing the trial court was wrong to conclude that she failed to mitigate her damages and asserting the court erred in concluding the state didn't meet its burden of proof on the mitigation of damages, records state.
The appeals court found no abuse by the trial court in its discretion to exclude the neutral committee's findings, found no error in the trial court's award of damages related to her firing, reversed the trial court's decision in part on the sole issue of mitigation of damages and rejected the county's challenges to the amount of back pay awarded to Keeling, records state.
Coffee County Mayor Gary Cordell on Thursday declined comment since the matter is pending, and County Attorney Robert Huskey was out of town until next week and could not be reached, according to a person who answered the phone in his office. The appeals attorney for the county, Nashville lawyer W. Carl Spining, did not immediately return a call Thursday seeking comment.
In a September interview with The Tullahoma News, Huskey said the appeals court ruling was "a travesty of justice — there's no question about it."
Huskey told the paper he would recommend the county seek a review by the Tennessee Supreme Court.
Keeling's attorney Jerry Gonzalez said Thursday he was "pleased" with the appeals court ruling.
Gonzalez said the total judgment for his client was now more than $1 million and interest was increasing that every day, with 6.25-percent post-judgment interest piling up at a rate of about $60,000 a year.
The county has 60 days from the date of the appeals court ruling to seek a review by the Tennessee Supreme Court.
County officials told The Tullahoma News that an application seeking to get the case before the state's highest court is pending.
The state supreme court considers applications and decides for itself whether it will hear a case. That part of the process can take months.
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.