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United States Eastern District Court Complaint

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Two former Grundy County (Tennessee) Highway Department employees have filed a $500,000 federal lawsuit against Road Superintendent Johnny Ray Fults, the department and the county in federal court claiming they were fired from their jobs because they voted for former Road Superintendent Hubert Dewayne "Turkey" Hargis in the May 2018 primary.

Plaintiffs Mary Ann Stotts and Hearlene A. Disheroon want their jobs back and are seeking a half million dollars for compensatory and emotional damages in addition to back- and front-pay, additional loss of income and fringe benefits, punitive damage, and interest on any amounts awarded in the case.

Fults didn't return a call made Thursday to the highway department requesting comment.

According to the suit filed Aug. 28, 2019, Stotts, an accountant/bookkeeper at the department, and Disheroon, a secretary, were fired from their jobs Sept. 4, 2018, and were given separation notices stating, "The decision has been made to hire someone else for the ADMINISTRATIVE/MANAGERIAL, position who the County Road Superintendent feels is better suited for the position."

The firings occurred in the wake of a May 2018 Democratic primary described as a "spirited campaign" between Fults and Hargis, according to the suit.

Fults defeated Hargis in the primary, then won handily over independent candidate Michael Meeks in the August general election. He began serving his term in Sept. 1, 2018.

"The plaintiffs [Stotts and Disheroon] supported Mr. Hargis in his campaign and their support for Mr. Hargis was within their constitutional right of expression of association and speech, and the plaintiffs acted within their rights as citizens," the suit states. "Their political opposition to the defendant Johnny Ray Fults was open and obvious.

"The plaintiffs were fired from their positions because of their political opposition to the defendant " the suit alleges. The firings "under these circumstance[s] have resulted in emotional damage and humiliation."

Winchester, Tennessee, attorney Robert Peters wrote in the suit that Stotts and Disheroon "have been wrongfully discharged in violation of their federal constitutional right to free expression, free association, and free speech "

Grundy County Mayor Michael Brady said the county has 30 days to file an answer to the lawsuit and the county's insurance carrier will handle the case moving forward.

"They will assign legal representation from the insurance pool and they'll go through the process," Brady said. He didn't elaborate further.

The whole thing is a little like deja vu.

Hargis, after winning the 2014 August county election, fired four employees who voted for his opponent in that race, Fults. The four subsequently filed a federal lawsuit against Hargis, who denied the allegations of wrongdoing, leading to a $200,000 settlement. The suit filed against Hargis in June 2014 by former employees Dennis Byers, Gregg Smartt, Leslie Brent King and Clarence T. Birdwell originally sought $8 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

The deadline for a response from the defendants in the current suit is in late September.

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.

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