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Staff Photo / Athens City Manager C. Seth Sumner speaks at a groundbreaking for the McMinn Higher Education Center on Sept. 27, 2019.

Former Athens, Tennessee, Police Chief Cliff Couch has filed suit in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga alleging violation of his First Amendment rights and accusing the town's city manager of retaliating against him for speaking out about activities involving the city manager.

The six-count federal complaint stems from an ongoing feud between Couch and City Manager C. Seth Sumner over the police chief's contentions Sumner interfered with his authority as chief, pressured him to investigate an elected city official, retaliated against him for going to other elected officials with suspicions about Sumner and that Sumner fired him in retaliation.

Couch — fired in October amid a City Council probe into ongoing problems between the two men — is seeking $2 million in compensatory and punitive damages and seeks to triple the award under specific guidelines that, if applicable and the case goes Couch's way, would bring the total to $6 million.

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Sumner announced the firing Oct. 11 in a news release that said the chief had been fired three days earlier.

"Couch was provided an opportunity to resign, but as of 9 a.m. Monday, Oct. 11, 2021, he did not exercise that opportunity," Sumner said in the release.

Sumner gave no other reason in the release for Couch's termination but said the move would provide more stability.

Fred Schultz, a former lieutenant with the department, has since been appointed permanent chief. Schultz already had served six months as interim chief.

"Mr. Sumner and I have no comment about the lawsuit," Athens City Attorney Chris Trew said Thursday in an email.

Trew pointed to media coverage from Kansas, where Couch served as chief and was embroiled in similar battles with the city of Great Bend in 2017.

On Sept. 14, 2017, Couch announced his resignation from his post in Great Bend effective the next month, the Great Bend Tribune reported.

Couch's resignation in Great Bend was the final chapter in what the paper called "the ongoing saga that consumed much of the summer and fall of that year." Similar to what happened in Athens, the monthslong controversy in Great Bend pitting Couch against a city administrator and a former mayor.

(READ MORE: Athens, Tennessee, man sues over $54-an-hour charge for city manager to respond to records requests)

In the federal suit in Chattanooga, Sumner is represented by Chattanooga lawyer Keith H. Grant, and the city is represented by Knoxville lawyer Emily C. Taylor.

Both Grant and Taylor said they couldn't comment on the pending case, saying they would file answers on behalf of their clients May 6.

In the suit, Couch accuses Sumner of repeatedly crossing ethical lines, retaliating against him and other city employees for refusing to advance the city manager's political agenda and slowly stripping the police chief's authority starting in 2019. That was when Sumner allegedly asked Couch to fix a citation he had been issued in February that year for having a loaded firearm with him at a Knoxville airport. Couch refused, the suit states.

In May 2020, Sumner tried to get him to file unwarranted charges against a local resident, but the judge wouldn't sign a warrant in the matter for lack of probable cause, Couch's suit states.

Couch also contends turnover in the department in early 2020 led him to ask the city's human resources department to investigate allegations of harassment, but Couch said in the suit Sumner took over the investigation, then stopped it, then resumed it again, further eroding the chief's authority.

(READ MORE: Mistrial declared in First Amendment lawsuit alleging violation of Athens, Tennessee, man's constitutional rights)

Couch said it was about this time that Sumner started holding one-on-one meetings with Couch while driving around McMinn County in Sumner's car, according to the suit.

"This was both odd and intimidating to Chief Couch," the suit states.

During one such meeting on July 15, 2020, Couch contends in the suit Sumner started asking about City Councilman Dick Pelley's involvement in a federal lawsuit filed against Sumner.

Sumner leveled accusations that Pelley was involved in an incident in which an elderly woman was found in poor condition but Couch referred the case to Adult Protective Services and told Sumner there was little police should do in follow-up, the suit states. Couch sometime later told Sumner an outside agency should conduct that kind of investigation, the suit states.

On Sept. 2, 2020, Couch called 10th Judicial District Attorney General Stephen Crump about some of the issues he was experiencing with Sumner, according to the lawsuit.

"Chief Couch explained that he felt the city manager was crossing ethical and perhaps legal lines by showing up at dispatched calls, entering crime scenes and by pressuring the department to press charges against those he was upset with, including Councilman Pelley," the suit states.

Couch was told to keep notes on anything he felt was unethical or illegal, according to the suit.

After this meeting, Couch contends Sumner told him during a one-on-one meeting a week later to put a positive spin on reports, presentations and memorandums about the state of the police department and accused Couch of painting a negative picture of the department, the suit states.

At a meeting held Sept. 30, 2020, between Couch, Sumner and others acting as facilitators, Couch voiced his concerns about being asked to cross what he believed to be ethical lines in being pressured to press charges on Pelley and that he felt he couldn't run his department without interference from the city manager.

The dissolving relationship between the city manager and the police chief continued to worsen in November 2020 when a surveillance camera in the police department lobby malfunctioned and when a replacement was sought from a supply closet, two Nest surveillance cameras were discovered missing, the suit states.

The cameras were thought to have once been in the possession of the city manager, according to officers who saw the cameras last, and Couch launched an investigation after hearing discrepancies in accounts of what happened to the cameras, the suit states. Both cameras later turned up in two different locations, the suit states.

During the Nest camera investigation, Couch went again to Crump to provide the information about the cameras. Crump in early 2021 concluded there was not enough evidence to charge Sumner with taking the cameras. Meanwhile, Couch contends in the suit he continued to voice concerns that he was being retaliated against by Sumner.

The camera issue and the dispute between Couch and Sumner boiled for months in Athens, and the City Council called a special meeting in August 2021 to discuss several issues revolving around Sumner, the first being the missing cameras, the suit states.

During the August meeting, Sumner said he had the cameras briefly in his office and returned them the next day. He said they never left city property, the Times Free Press previously reported.

Couch during the meeting detailed examples of Sumner's retaliation against him, the suit states, and told council members about his own allegations Sumner tried to get Couch to fix the citation and investigate a sitting City Council member.

The hourslong meeting was recessed to be reconvened but several delays led to the meeting not being resumed until it was finally set for Oct. 18 the suit states.

But 10 days before the Oct. 18 meeting was to take place, Sumner fired Couch, the suit states.

In an Oct. 11 work session — the same day Couch's firing was announced — Couch contends Sumner refused to answer questions about the firing.

"At the workshop, Councilman Pelley openly stated that the timing of this was suspect and that he believed this was retaliation, that the city of Athens was retaliating against Chief Couch and that there was no reason for the termination of Chief Couch," the suit states.

During the Oct. 18 meeting, Sumner again refused to give a reason for Couch's firing, the suit states. At the end of that meeting, Sumner was suspended without pay for two weeks.

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

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