Keeling case

Coffee County will pay nearly $1 million to former employee Melinda Keeling for wrongful termination.

The Coffee County Commission approved the settlement amount during a special-called meeting on Monday.

The commission voted in support of the settlement for the amount of $982,500, if paid by Dec. 31, 2018, and $985,000, if paid in two installments – on the first due Dec. 26 and the second payable by Jan. 31, 2019.

Since the county does not have insurance coverage for this type of liability, the cost will be carried by county taxpayers.

This settlement marks the end of the long and costly litigation associated with the case.

Carl Spining represents the county in the case, with Jerry Gonzalez representing Keeling.

 

Background

Keeling was employed by the Coffee County Department of Codes and Safety from 2006 to 2010. Following her dismissal, she filed a claim alleging the county violated the Tennessee Public Employee Political Freedom Act (PEPFA).

Keeling was fired from the county codes department on May 27, 2010. At the time, Glenn Darden was the director of the department and David Pennington served as county mayor. Darden retired in September 2015, and Pennington didn’t seek re-election after his term ended in 2014. Pennington’s bid to return to the county mayor’s in this year’s county general election was unsuccessful.

Keeling contended she was disciplined and fired because she brought her concerns to Pennington about Darden being unavailable to answer questions and address concerns brought into the office by the public.

According to PEPFA, it’s unlawful for any public employer to discipline or discriminate against an employee because the employee exercised his or her right to communicate with an elected official.

Keeling filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee, asserting claims against Coffee County and Darden and invoking the federal court’s supplemental jurisdiction over state law claims; and against Darden himself for common law assault. In 2013, the U.S. District Court dismissed all claims, declining to exercise further jurisdiction.

Keeling then refiled the claims in Coffee County Circuit Court, alleging the defendants disciplined her and took an adverse action against her, including “physical threat, intimidation, reduction of pay through compensatory time off, removal of job duties, creating a hostile work environment, and, finally, termination.”

A jury found in favor of Keeling on Jan. 12, 2017, and awarded her damages in the amount of $10,000. In accordance with state law, those damages were tripled to $30,000.

Keeling was also entitled to back-pay damages and front-pay damages that would be tripled as well, bringing the total amount to be paid to Keeling by the county at the time to about $490,000.

The county subsequently appealed that decision.

An opinion issued by the Tennessee Court of Appeals on Sept. 18 affirmed the judgement of the trial court in the case, meaning the county taxpayers would have to pay more than $1 million in damages and attorney fees to Keeling and Gonzalez.

After the ruling of the Tennessee Court of Appeal, county officials considered filing an application with the Tennessee Supreme Court, according to Coffee County Attorney Robert Huskey.

The deadline for filing the application was Nov. 16.

Huskey said last week that the county had filed an application with the Tennessee Supreme Court, with the intention of withdrawing it should a settlement deal be struck.

 

Long and costly process

The agreement reached this week was more than eight years in the making.

“This case was originally filed in Nov. 2010,” Gonzalez said. “So it has been a long and tough battle – for both sides.”

When the parties are willing to talk to each other, a compromise can be reached on terms agreeable to both sides, said Gonzalez.

“That is what happened here,” he said. “Both sides sat down at a table and reached a fair compromise and the case settled.”

Keeling is satisfied with the settlement, according to Gonzalez.

Previously, Gonzalez had mentioned that state law would require the county to raise taxes to pay for the judgment. However, he said on Tuesday that he’s not going to ask the court to force the county to raise taxes.

“With this settlement all litigation will cease, unless for some reason the county fails to make its agreed-to payments on time,” Gonzalez said.

If the county fails to pay by the specified dates, the settlement agreement calls for a flat penalty of $5,000 for each month the county fails to abide by the terms of the agreement, he added.

“Should that happen and the county fails to pay on time, then the only litigation would involve collection efforts,” Gonzalez said. “Should it come to that – which I don’t expect – then asking the court to compel the county to raise taxes would be an option.

“However, my analysis of county finances shows that the county has plenty of money in cash or in pooled and non-pooled investments to make the agreed-to payments without the need to raise taxes.”

Gonzalez said Spining has represented the county competently.

“He is an absolute professional and a worthy adversary,” Gonzalez said. “I have no doubt that, from the beginning of this case, he has properly advised the power brokers of the county about the risks and benefits of continuing to pursue litigation instead of settling. It has been bad advice from others and bad decisions on the part of county government that is the sole cause of the damages in this case ballooning.”

 

‘Lessons to be learned’

Before appealing the case to the Tennessee Court of Appeals, the county could have ended the litigation process by paying Keeling $490,000.

A proper insurance coverage and human resources policies would also have minimized the damages to taxpayers, according the Keeling’s attorney. 

“Perhaps there are lessons to be learned here,” Gonzalez said. “First, the county needs insurance to cover employee claims and wage-type damages.”

Additionally, when an employee brings a PEPFA claim, or any type of discrimination claim, the county should have practices and policies in place to fairly, efficiently and quickly resolve the dispute, said Gonzalez.

“Boilerplate language in an employee manual is not enough,” he said. “To this day, the Human Resources Department of Coffee County still is not tasked with, or apparently trained on, the duty to investigate or help resolve employee disputes, according to its own website. Instead, it appears that employee disputes are resolved on an ad hoc basis with no centralized process. That probably needs to change.”

Coffee County Mayor Gary Cordell was contacted for comment; however, he didn’t reply as of this time.

Elena Cawley can be reached by email at ecawley@tullahomanews.com.

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