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A Knox County elected official used the pandemic as an excuse to purge his office of older women he replaced with young women he met at "local bars and entertainment establishments," two federal lawsuits allege.

Kathy Diane Lewis, 63, and Christine Dumais, 64, are suing Knox County in U.S. District Court over alleged age and disability discrimination by Knox County Criminal Court Clerk Mike Hammond.

The women allege in the lawsuit that Hammond, who spent decades in the radio industry before he was elected in 2014 as clerk over Knox County's Criminal, General Sessions Criminal Division and Fourth Circuit courts, laid them off during the pandemic to make way for the hiring of much younger women with little or no experience.

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"Hammond established a pattern and practice of hiring females significantly younger than (Lewis and Dumais), and some of whom Hammond had become acquainted with at local bars and entertainment establishments," the lawsuits stated. "Despite those significantly younger females having no experience, they received promotions and pay raises in short periods of time.

"(Hammond) developed a pattern and practice of favoring employees significantly younger than (Lewis and Dumais) and then without serious medical conditions for pay increases and promotions," the lawsuits stated.

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Hammond did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

Furloughs

Both women had been employed in the Clerk's Office since 2009. Both say in the lawsuits they "performed all assigned duties satisfactorily without reprimand or written discipline" and had "excellent" attendance records.

When the pandemic struck in early March 2020, the Tennessee Supreme Court ordered all courts in the state to shut down in-person hearings but allowed judges to conduct court business via video. Courts were allowed to reopen in July 2020.

Attorney Jeffrey Taylor, who represents both women, wrote in the lawsuits that Hammond announced on March 31, 2020, that employees over 60 or those suffering from medical conditions that made them uncomfortable working amid the pandemic "could take time off or work remotely."

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Dumais, who was 62 at the time, notified Hammond that she had diabetes. Lewis, who was 61 at the time, told Hammond she had a "high-risk category medical condition," the lawsuits stated. Hammond placed both women on leave through the end of April 2020.

When the pair sought to resume work after that four-week leave, Hammond announced a plan to furlough three employees. Under the furlough, workers would not be paid but would be allowed to collect unemployment benefits. Dumais and Lewis were among the three chosen for furlough, according to the litigation. There is no information in the lawsuit about the third employee who was furloughed.

"Hammond told (the women) that the furlough would begin on May 9, 2020, and that (they) would return to work from the furlough on July 6, 2020," the lawsuits stated.

Lewis "repeatedly asked Hammond if he would be bringing her back to work on July 6, 2020, and Hammond replied, 'Yes,'" her lawsuit stated. "At that time, (Lewis) specifically asked Hammond how he selected the three employees for furlough. Hammond stated that he tried to choose the employees who would financially benefit from the furlough the most. Hammond then assured (Lewis) she would make more money on furlough than (she) would make if she were working in the (Clerk's) Office."

According to the lawsuits, Hammond sent both women a letter in mid-June in which he stated he was extending their furloughs through July 31, 2020.

Firings

Just three days before their furloughs were set to expire, Hammond advised both women that he was eliminating their jobs as part of a "reduction in force due to COVID-19."

"Hammond represented that (their jobs were) being cut due to lack of revenue," Taylor wrote. "Hammond represented that Knox County did not have enough money to fund (their) positions and bring (them) back to work."

The women allege in the litigation that Hammond did not eliminate their jobs and instead filled them with younger women.

"At the current time the Knox County Criminal Court, as well as each of the courts of Knox County that Hammond is responsible, are at full staff, with the same or possibly more employees than at the time of (the women's) termination," the lawsuits stated. "At no time since (the women were terminated) has Hammond or any Knox County representative contacted (the women) to discuss or offer (their jobs) back or (offer) any other job with Knox County for which (each) is qualified.

"From Aug. 1, 2020, to the present date, Hammond has hired numerous new employees, significantly younger than (Lewis and Dumais) and who do not have disabilities or perceived disabilities, to work in the Knox County Criminal Court, General Sessions Court Criminal Division and Fourth Circuit Court," the lawsuits stated.

Both women filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and have since received from the commission a "right to sue" letter based on that agency's investigation, according to the litigation.

Read more at TennesseeLookout.com.

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