As a years-long wrongful termination lawsuit finally concludes with a settlement that will cost county taxpayers nearly $1 million, county officials are taking a look at the issues that led to the judgement against the county.
The Keeling case
Last week, the Coffee County Commission approved a settlement to end a lawsuit brought by former county employee Melinda Keeling. The settlement will be paid, using mostly taxpayer dollars, to Keeling and her attorney, Jerry Gonzalez.
Under the terms of the agreement, Coffee County agreed to pay Keeling either $982,500 in one installment to be paid by Dec. 31, or a total of $985,000 in two installments, the first due Dec. 26 and the second payable by Jan. 31, 2019.
Keeling was employed by the Coffee County Department of Codes and Safety from 2006 to 2010. Following her dismissal, she filed a suit alleging the county violated Public Employee Political Freedom Act (PEPFA).
Keeling claimed she was disciplined and fired because she brought concerns about her supervisor, Glenn Darden, to then-mayor David Pennington.
She complained Darden was unavailable to answer questions and address concerns brought into the office by the public.
PEPFA states it’s unlawful for any public employer to discipline or discriminate against an employee because the employee communicated with an elected official.
Throughout the litigation process, questions have been raised about the lack of appropriate human resources policies and procedures that could have better supported the county’s reasons for dismissing Keeling – which officials say were performance-based and not related to her discussion with Pennington – and about the lack of sufficient insurance coverage to absorb the impact of an expensive court case.
Addressing the issues
Coffee County Mayor Gary Cordell, County Attorney Robert Huskey and Human Resource Director Heather Shelton addressed the concerns in a letter prepared by Huskey on Nov. 30.
Although the county agreed to the settlement to put the case to rest, officials are not pleased with the outcome.
“The result of this case is a travesty of justice,” Huskey said. “Although we have the best court system in the world, in reality too often, due to frailties of individuals involved and utilization of technicality of rules of evidence, the real truth is not heard. That occurred in this case.”
County employees are aware of the ramifications of this case, said Huskey.
“One natural concern,” they would have, Huskey said, is that “such a dastardly result coming from this case can put all county officials and supervisors on edge in trying to do their job.”
He added that every supervisor, department head and elected official in Coffee County is aware of the dangers of such a case.
To protect the county in the future, at least one change has been implemented in the human resources department.
“The same person who is the human resources director now handled human resources at the time of the Keeling layoff,” Huskey said. “At that time, she was working in the budget and finance office and was not full time in human resources.”
Shelton has worked for the county since 2004. Before July 1, 2016, she reported to Budget and Finance Director Marianna Edinger and handled payroll, personnel, insurance and any employee issues.
“In July 2016, Mayor Cordell established a separate human resources office directly under the mayor, and the human resources director was moved to a new location to work full time in that area as opposed to part time,” Huskey said.
No PEPFA policy change
“The legal basis of the Keeling case was a particular statute which secures free access to communications with all elected officials,” Huskey said, referring to PEPFA.
The statute had been in effect for years and, at the time of the Keeling trial, there were only three reported decisions in the state on that statute. Huskey contended the statute is short, does not appropriately explain its parameters and doesn’t give sufficient guidance.
“The communication that was involved in the Keeling case was Ms. Keeling going to discuss a matter with the mayor [David Pennington],” he said. “No policy change was needed in regard of such matter as a result of this case, because the mayor had at that time and long before the Keeling layoff occurred – an open-door policy. Not only were all employees authorized to come to the mayor and talk about problems, he encouraged it.”
At the time of Keeling’s termination and filing of the suit, Coffee County had coverage through Tennessee Risk Management Trust, according to Huskey.
“Sometime after the Keeling layoff, the county changed its coverage from the Tennessee Risk Management Trust to a policy under Travelers Insurance, based upon premium differences, but that policy provided like coverage to the prior policy,” Huskey said.
While the county was under that new policy, during a conference with the insurance company, Huskey and Cordell asked Travelers’ representatives if the county could obtain coverage to cover back wages.
“We were advised in that conference that they didn’t have that coverage available; and if they did, it would be too costly to purchase,” Huskey said. “Despite that fact, at a later day apparently they changed their coverage options and made that coverage available, and the county secured it. I don’t know the date of implementation, but I know we obtained the additional coverage as soon as it was available to us.”
Elena Cawley can be reached via email at email@example.com.