Niles case faces possible retrial

Jeremy Nash

After first hearing in December a lawsuit between Loudon County Mayor Rollen “Buddy” Bradshaw and General Sessions Court and Circuit Court Clerk Lisa Niles that dates back to 2014 related to a request for additional employees and salary increases in her department, Chancellor Frank V. Williams III voided a judgment issued in March.

Both parties met with Williams on Friday at Loudon County Courthouse in hopes of determining whether Niles would be granted $57,000 in raises to current employees. Included in the $57,000 was a 2 percent raise to cover retroactive pay during the two previous fiscal years.

Niles and her legal counsel, Zach Tenry, were seeking an additional $43,886.05 in salary adjustments for current employees under Niles’ supervision. The 2 percent raises amounts to $13,113.95.

“The next step is a new trial where we set a trial date and get the witnesses ready and do again what we did in December,” Joe Ford, attorney for Bradshaw, said. “This will happen from time to time where a new trial is granted, and it’s happened here. The issue should be substantially narrow since we have already tried the case once. But the effect of the new trial is to vacate the current judgment, so as we sit here today the previously made judgment isn’t anymore. That judgment is vacated, and we’re going back to court for him to make another judgment.
“... It’s my opinion based on what the chancellor said is that he wanted to get the judgment right and to do that he wanted the entire case retried,” Ford added.
Tenry said he believes Williams decided to restart the case to “make sure the record is clear before his ruling becomes final.”
During a hearing in January at Morgan County Courthouse, Williams requested legal documentation showing Niles’ request for increases for all current employees under her supervision, although Niles outlined her requests in the original lawsuit.
“I will touch base with Mr. Ford and Mr. (Kristopher) Frye next week and see if we can’t get a trial date during the Chancellor’s next Loudon term, which I believe is in August,” Tenry said in an email correspondence. “I wish we could resolve the matter before then, but I won’t know what the county’s position is in that respect until I’ve talked further with Mr. Ford.”
During Friday’s hearing, Ford contested that Williams should consider amending salaries to be more aligned with those in surrounding counties by dropping the starting pay to $24,000 instead of $25,500. Included in a motion to alter or amend the judgment from Ford’s office was information about four counties similar to Loudon.
The motion argued that Williams’ ruling stipulated a higher starting salary than in other counties. According to the motion, the starting salary in Roane County was $23,345 and $24,000 in Monroe County. The salary in Blount County was $24,840. The only county listed higher than Loudon was Jefferson at $26,000.
The starting salary for court employees in Loudon County is $20,800.
The evidence provided by Niles was not substantial enough to warrant additional money, Ford argued.
“It’s well-documented that I’ve made countless efforts to work with the county on sensible resolutions outside the courtroom, but obviously compromise is a two-way street,” Niles said. “The chancellor made it clear in his previous ruling that our request for more staff and higher salaries is warranted, and there’s simply no evidence to refute that. That’s why I don’t understand why the county hasn’t settled this matter two years ago or didn’t settle it two years ago. The Chancellor Williams’ decision today was one that he felt was necessary.”
Bradshaw said he was “surprised” about the new trial.
“But I certainly respect the chancellor’s desire to get this right,” he said. “And I understand (him) saying he wants to get this right, and he wants to make sure it’s 100 percent (right), and I certainly respect that decision.”
In Williams’ memorandum opinion issued in December, he ruled in favor of Niles to add more deputy clerks and funding future employees. The four new employees included a deputy clerk and bookkeeper at a salary of $32,000 per year and three deputy clerks at $25,500 per year.
“There’s no way around what happened today,” Commissioner Van Shaver said. “She had a victory in her hand and the greediness — the just unmitigated greediness that I got to have more — she lost it all, she lost it all. Her employees now won’t get a raise another year because of her. Now this will be three years in a row her employees have not gotten a raise because Ms. Niles will not settle this thing.”
Shaver said if Niles would have been granted the additional money, he believes the county would have needed to increase property taxes by 2 cents.
“She’s cost this county an absolute ridiculous fortune in money for absolutely nothing,” Shaver said. “All the — what are we talking about now, $100,000-$150,000 in legal fees we’ve probably spent so far? Gone. I mean that’s a waste. That’s gone.”
Per a motion from Tenry, the requested adjustment in raises would have equaled a 13.6 percent increase in Niles’ annual office expenditures for deputy clerk salaries.
In a previous interview in March, Loudon County Budget Director Tracy Blair said the county had spent $38,730 in the current fiscal year on legal fees related to the case. Last fiscal year, Loudon County spent $17,744.
Niles said she would be willing to settle outside of court.
“As I’ve said all along, I’m willing to compromise so we don’t have to go through this again,” Niles said.