Ex-Lenoir City codes officer contends speaking out cost her job

Hugh G. Willett knoxnews.com

A former Lenoir City codes enforcement officer has filed a federal lawsuit alleging she was dismissed after speaking out against safety and health code violations at the new city hall.

Leslie Johnson alleges she was fired from her position as codes officer earlier this year after trying to bring attention to compliance issues at the old SunTrust Bank building that was being remodeled into a new city hall.

Lenoir City Mayor Tony Aikens, Public Safety Director Don White and City Administrator Dale Hurst are named as defendants in the lawsuit that was filed last week in federal court in Knoxville.

The suit alleges Johnson was terminated “solely because she exercised her constitutional and statutory rights and refused to participate in or remain silent about conduct that violated, or that she reasonably believed violated, laws, regulations, or rules intended to protect the public health, safety or welfare.”

According to the lawsuit, “Defendants allegedly discharged Ms. Johnson because she allegedly engaged in insubordination, neglect of duty, and violation of city policy and abuse of city equipment.”

Aikens said he could not respond to the specific allegations because of the pending litigation.

“She wanted to file a lawsuit. The truth will prevail,” the mayor said.

Others named in the lawsuit could not be reached for comment.

The lawsuit alleges that Johnson was qualified for her job and received outstanding performance reviews and never received any disciplinary action before being suspended on Jan. 23 and fired two days later.

“Johnson repeatedly communicated that, before this aged building, the upper floors of which had been vacant for years, could be occupied and used as a city hall, it would need to be made Americans with Disabilities Act Codes-compliant. She further expressed concerns about being excluded from meetings in which, in light of these issues, she should have been included.”

The lawsuit alleges that Johnson was told by White, her supervisor, that the required plans, drawings, inspections and reviews would be too expensive.

According to the lawsuit, Johnson was extremely troubled about the failure and refusal to properly consider and act on her expressed concerns.

“Consequently, she met with an attorney on the afternoon of Jan. 10, 2013, and engaged in further protected activity by reporting her concerns to him. Unbeknownst to Ms. Johnson, defendant White surreptitiously followed her to this meeting.”

The suit alleges that Johnson had been followed since November, shortly after bringing her concerns about code compliance to others in the city government.

Off duty police officers were used for some of the construction work, the lawsuit alleges.

A jury trial is requested. Relief would include back pay and front pay with damages, lost benefits, compensatory and punitive damages and legal costs.