Wallace sues City of Lewisburg

Friday, July 29, 2011

Lewisburg's immediate past industrial recruiter has sued the city in Marshall County Circuit Court in an attempt to get his job back, as well as back pay, interest, lost benefits and damages of $250,000.

Legal counsel for the city will provide a vigorous defense in court against the lawsuit, Mayor Barbara Woods said Wednesday afternoon. She further indicated that the municipality could substantiate its position that there was no wrongdoing.

Terry Wallace, now working in Columbia under a state labor department program dealing with flood damage, is represented by Lewisburg-based attorney Lee Bowles and attorney Steve Waldron of Murfreesboro. Wallace was terminated July 2, 2010, from the job paying $66,000 annually.

Then-City Manager Eddie Fuller asked Wallace to resign in an apparent reaction to discussion during what Bowles and Waldron describe as a city council workshop that was allegedly conducted in violation of the state's law requiring open meetings.

Decisions made during city meetings without adequate public notice are null and void under the state's open meetings act because the meeting is technically considered to have never occurred.

As a result, any directive arising from a consensus reached during such a meeting could not, technically, exist.

However, the mayor on Wednesday described a chain of events that she says could counter such a claim based on the open meetings law.

Fuller approached Woods in a lobby of City Hall, she said, paraphrasing Fuller as acknowledging that she and Wallace were friends and had been for years.

"We were classmates in school," the retired school principal said, continuing her description of the conversation initiated by Fuller about a year ago. "'I'm going to have to do something you won't like,' he told me."

Enough councilmen had come to him saying Wallace should be dismissed, she recalled Fuller saying.

In Lewisburg, the city manager has the authority to hire and fire city employees. There are only four city employees hired and fired by the council: manager, recorder, treasurer and attorney.

If a city manager concludes from separate observations that a majority of the five voting members of the council want something done, then the manager could decide that's what should be done.

City Attorney Steve Broadway on Wednesday morning said he was not aware that the complaint had been filed, but that notice to the city could be served upon the mayor.

Woods said, "I haven't seen the papers. I don't know whose desk they are on."

Regardless, a typical chain of events is for the city to turn to the Tennessee Municipal League for a lawyer experienced in such issues. The TML has a Risk Management Pool based in Brentwood and legal counsel is either in-house or contracted from there.

Another issue raised by Wallace's complaint is that he's a victim of age discrimination.

"A comment was made by one of (Lewisburg's) council members at the 'workshop' that (the city) could get someone right out of college to do (Wallace's) job, [and one] who would work for less money than (what Wallace) was being paid," according to the complaint.

Wallace took his contention about age discrimination to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission office in Nashville. That office rarely reveals anything about what it does, but it's become clear that its staff concluded their investigation and advised Wallace that they would not go further, but that he has the right to complain in civil court.

Again, the mayor described a chain of events that she recalls from last year, events that counter a claim by Wallace.

Councilmen did discuss preferences for a successor, Woods said. But she recalls that as being after Wallace had been dismissed.

It was "when they were making up rules on how to get another" industrial recruiter, she said. And that successor might best be one with a college degree in a relevant field.

Ultimately, the qualifications were modified so as not to require a college degree, the mayor noted.

Wallace was 63 when he was dismissed. His successor, Greg Lowe, was promoted from a combined position of stormwater director and codes enforcement officer when he was 41.

A court officer said she believes the city has 30 days to file a reply to Wallace's complaint. It was filed July 1. Notice was on July 8, so the city might be expected to reply in 10 days. It is, however, not unusual for a defendant's lawyer to request an extension.