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Former Sullivan highway workers file suit

July 8th, 2014 12:32 am by J. H. Osborne

Former Sullivan highway workers file suit

GREENEVILLE — The attorney for seven former employees of the Sullivan County Highway Department filed a lawsuit in federal court Monday seeking a jury trial, reinstatement of employment, back pay and attorney's fees.

Kingsport-based attorney D. Bruce Shine, with a history of wins in labor-related court challenges, filed the complaint in U.S. District Court of the Eastern Division of Tennessee on behalf of Christopher D. Salley, Daniel E. Whitaker, Scott Daniel Mendenhall, James Paul Miller; Rickie Randel Yates, Matthew Lee Stewart and Dean Bamman.

Interim Sullivan County Highway Commissioner Bobbie Manning, in his official capacity as such, and the Sullivan County Highway Department are named as defendants.

Manning, a Republican, sought and lost the GOP nomination to run for highway commissioner earlier this year.

The complaint alleges Manning terminated the first six listed former employees "for exercise of their First Amendment Rights under the Constitution of the United States," while the seventh was "discharged for like and similar reasons."

Manning has said he fired six of the employees and a seventh left rather than accept changes required by Manning — and that others in management at the highway department had input into the decisions, which Manning said were based on individual work histories.

The complaint filed in federal court alleges none of the fired employees was a disciplinary problem and no discussion occurred concerning their termination until their providing statements to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation concerning Manning's predecessor's "misconduct in office."

All left county employment in January, as Manning was serving as the recognized successor to former Highway Commissioner Terry Shaffer — who retired suddenly in December amid a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation probe into goings-on at the highway department.

Manning had not yet been sworn in and had not yet secured a surety bond that the highway commissioner and some other officials are required to have.

Shine has in the past cited those two things as invalidating any action by Manning during the timeframe in which the employees were fired.

Shine also has alleged that the firings were due to cooperation by the employees with the TBI investigation.

The complaint filed in federal court alleges Manning fired the seven plaintiffs as a condition of his being named Shaffer's successor "due to their participation in the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation outside the scope of their ordinary job responsibilities. The First Amendment to the Constitution protects a public employee who so provides truthful testimony."

The complaint in federal court seeks:

  • That the former workers have their terminations overturned and that each be reinstated at the highway department.
  • That each be paid all lost wages, fringe benefits — including but not limited to contributions to their pension plan benefits and payment of such health benefits to which they would have been entitled but for their termination — and reimbursement of any health care costs incurred, if those costs would not have been incurred if they had not been fired.
  • For attorney fees and cost of litigation in this case.
  • For a jury to try this case.
  • For such further and other general relief to which they would be entitled under the facts and circumstances here existing.
  • Shine said he filed the complaint Monday because the timing is right — with a public vote on who will next run the highway department coming up in a few weeks.

    Voters will elect a new Sullivan County highway commissioner in the Aug. 8 county general election.

    Early voting begins July 18.

    Voters will pick between Republican nominee Jim Belgeri and Democratic nominee James "Mickey" Nottingham.

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