Former Lenoir City employee settles on federal suit
Hugh G. Willett knoxnews.com
LENOIR CITY — Former Lenoir City codes enforcement officer Leslie Johnson, who filed a federal lawsuit alleging she was fired after trying to bring attention to compliance issues at the old SunTrust Bank building, has received a settlement of $206,298.57.
The settlement, dated Nov. 19, releases defendants Lenoir City, Mayor Tony Aikens, Public Safety Director Don White and City Administrator Dale Hurst from any and all past liability claims.
Payment included $20,000 for back pay, $100,000 for non-wage compensatory and other claimed damages and $86,298.57 for attorney’s fees and litigation expenses.
“The city is pleased with the resolution of this matter,” said Tennessee Municipal League attorney Ben Lauderback of the Knoxville firm Watson, Roach, Batson, Rowell and Lauderback.
Although heavily influenced by the insurance company, the settlement was beneficial to the citizens of Lenoir City, Lauderback said.
Johnson agreed to settle all claims and agreed that payment was not an admission of liability by the payers. Lenoir City agreed to purge all personal emails, text messages and photographs which the city agrees are not public records and to give Johnson a neutral reference.
The suit alleged 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.”
The lawsuit alleges Johnson was qualified for her job and received outstanding performance reviews and never received any disciplinary action before being suspended 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.”
Johnson said she found code compliance issues at the old SunTrust bank building that was being remodeled into the new City Hall. The lawsuit alleges Johnson was told by White, her supervisor, that the required plans, drawings, inspections and reviews would be too expensive.
The suit alleges Johnson had been followed since November, shortly after bringing her concerns about code compliance to others in the city government.
According to Johnson, the first notice she had of any issues was on Jan. 23, 2013, when she was called to a meeting with Hurst and White. Johnson said she was told she was being suspended and was escorted out of City Hall.
Two days later a police officer arrived at her home with paperwork declaring her dismissal, she said. Johnson said the reason for dismissal was related to the use of her city vehicle.
Doug Janney, attorney for Johnson, did not respond to requests for comment.