City ordered to rehire officer

City ordered to rehire officer

February 6th, 2011 by Todd South in News

The Chattanooga Police Department named Mickel Hoback "Officer of the Year" in 2007. Two years later, the Iraq war veteran was fired for having post-traumatic stress disorder.

Last week, the Hamilton County Chancery Court ordered Chattanooga to give him his job back with back pay.

City attorneys have 30 days from Tuesday to file a response to Chancellor Jeffrey Atherton's decision. Calls to the city attorney's office were not returned Friday.

A separate $1.5 million federal lawsuit could bring the U.S. Department of Labor into the case to prosecute Chattanooga for violating the Uniformed Services Employment and Re-employment Act, according to Phillip Lawrence, Hoback's attorney in both suits. The law, among other things, covers civilian employer conduct concerning military personnel.

The initial U.S. District Court filing, which since has been amended, also alleged that then-Police Chief Freeman Cooper fired Hoback in retaliation for Hoback's comments to the media in 2008 about take-home patrol car changes for police who lived outside the county.

Reached Thursday night, Hoback referred comments to his attorneys, saying both cases are ongoing.

Lawrence said the claim of retaliation later was stricken from the original complaint. He took the retaliation charge out because it complicated matters and he wanted to focus on the other aspects of the case, he said.

Back from iraq

Court documents show that Hoback was deployed to Iraq with the Tennessee Army National Guard's 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment. Upon returning home, he saw counselors at the Chattanooga Vet Center for two years and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Counselors said he was improving with treatment, court documents show.

But Hoback's sleep medications were making him sick, so his Vet Center counselor, Mike Bearden, sent him to the Veterans Affairs Outpatient Clinic in Chattanooga to have the medication adjusted.

During his Aptil 2009 meeting with the clinic psychiatrist, Dr. Estella Acosta, she decided that Hoback needed to be admitted to the VA clinic in Murfreesboro as a suicide risk.

Bearden, reached by phone Friday, said when Hoback came to him after the meeting with Acosta, he immediately contacted the doctor.

"I called over there and said, 'What's going on here?'" he said. "I've seen him for two years. He's not a suicide risk."

Acosta no longer works at the Chattanooga clinic and couldn't be reached for comment.

Hoback asked Bearden what he should do, and the counselor told him to report to the Murfreesboro facility. While driving to Murfreesboro, Hoback learned that Acosta had called police, who issued a "be on the lookout" order.

He checked into the clinic and was released the next day. According to court documents, the lead psychiatrist in Murfreesboro called Bearden and asked why Hoback even had been sent to the clinic because it was obvious he wasn't a suicide risk.

Cooper put Hoback on administrative leave the same day. He was fired in July 2009.

Attorney Jerry Tidwell, who helped represent Hoback in the Chancery Court case, said Friday that he was "real pleased for Mike."

"Had that doctor at the VA not screwed up and sent him to the hospital ... this wouldn't have happened," Tidwell said.

On the force

Court documents show that Hoback joined the Chattanooga Police Department in 2000 and deployed to Iraq from 2004 to 2005. He served as a .50-caliber machine gunner on numerous combat missions.

Hoback was assigned to the Quick Reaction Force, a rotating, on-call team that reacts immediately to explosions, attacks or incidents. His unit patrolled in Balad Ruz, a small village in Diyala Province, which The New York Times described as "one of the most dangerous provinces in Iraq until 2008."

A few months after his deployment ended, Hoback was back at the police department. In 2007, he was named "Officer of the Year."

Throughout his police service, Hoback received either "effective" or "strong" reviews from his supervisors. Sgt. David Frye, his immediate supervisor, told the City Council's appeal board that Hoback was "one of the top five officers" he had worked with in 24 years of law enforcement.

But in the summer of 2008, Hoback spoke to the media about a patrol-car policy change by the city government. Although he worked in Chattanooga, Hoback lived in Bradley County. The new policy required officers who lived outside the county to park their patrol cars at the police headquarters on Amnicola Highway rather than take them to the county line at the end of their shift.

Hoback, who had been cleared by the police information officer to talk with the media, said he disagreed with the new policy. After the story ran, he was told the police chief was "displeased" with him for what he said.

After the April 2009 incident with Acosta and the Murfreesboro clinic, Cooper had Hoback undergo a mental evaluation with a city-contracted psychiatrist. The doctor deemed Hoback "unfit for duty" after a few hours of testing and interviews, court documents said.

Hoback saw two more doctors after Cooper told him he no longer could work as a police officer. Both doctors said he could return to duty, court documents said.

Cooper told Hoback he could apply for another job, citing a state law and Peace Officer Training Standards rules stating that police could not serve if they had mental illnesses.

Both Lawrence and Tidwell pointed out that the state law has been challenged and that Tennessee agreed in a 2003 federal consent order not to enforce the state law because it violated federal law.

Hoback appealed his firing to the City Council later that year, which voted 2-1 against him. Shortly afterward, Hoback filed both lawsuits.

POLL: Should Mickel Hoback get his Chattanooga police job back?