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City of Humboldt files answer-to-complaint to lawsuit

Dr. Versie Hamlett

by Danny Wade

A lawsuit filed in March by Dr. Versie Hamlett, director of Humboldt City Schools, was brought upon the city of Humboldt and the Humboldt school board in an effort to keep her job. On May 1, 2020, attorneys Flippin, Collins & Hill from Milan, Tenn. issued an answer-to-complaint on behalf of the defendants, the city of Humboldt.

Dr. Hamlett employed the legal services of Jackson, Tenn. attorney Lewis Cobb of Spragins Barnett & Cobb and Justin S. Gilbert of Gilbert Law from Chattanooga, Tenn.

The case was filed under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the Tennessee Human Rights Act. The lawsuit also seeks to block the school board from replacing Dr. Hamlett until the matter can be fully heard and decided in federal court.

The 15-page answer-to-complaint document addressed every paragraph and sentence in Dr. Hamlett’s complaint, which was filed in federal court with the United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee Eastern Division. Gilbert explained that the city had to be listed as a defendant since Humboldt City Schools is part of the city.

In the complaint, Dr. Hamlett alleged school board member Leon McNeal wanted qualified white educators fired in favor of black teachers. The complaint alleged McNeal wanted to “clean house” and stated that Dr. Hamlett’s “head was on the chopping block” if she did not comply. The lawsuit refers to race dozens of times, leading to McNeal’s reason and decision to not renew Dr. Hamlett’s contract with an extension.

School board member Leon McNeal

In the answer-to-complaint, the defendants admit that McNeal was concerned about the recruitment of African-American teachers in the school system and that he believed this would have a positive effect on African-American students. The defendants maintain that any comment McNeal made to Hamlett regarding her job status being on the “chopping block” had nothing to do with race discrimination in any form or fashion.

In Dr. Hamlett’s complaint, she alleged McNeal was the swing vote that determined not to offer a contract extension.
Attorneys’ response was that the school board voted to not offer a contract extension.

Attorneys also addressed McNeal’s comments made publicly after the September school board meeting when the board voted not to renew Dr. Hamlett’s contract. The defendants admit only that McNeal made a comment that referenced “clean house,” following the vote not to renew Hamlett’s contract. However, the comment was simply a reference to improving various aspects of the Humboldt School System and reducing and/or revising pay for some staff positions that he believed contributed to the system’s financial state. The defendants further aver that the phrase “clean house,” was in no way a reference to firing otherwise qualified Caucasian teachers.
The defendants’ (city and school board) response denies any and all allegations based on race. They also deny that federal court has jurisdiction over any state claim.

Legal claims in Dr. Hamlett’s complaint includes:

•Section 1981 prohibits racial discrimination in the making, performance, modification, and termination of contracts, and the enjoyment of all benefits, privileges, terms and conditions of the contractual relationship.

•The First Amendment and 42 U.S.C. §1983 protect constitutionally protected conduct’here, speech, and Dr. Hamlett’s opposition to racial discrimination.

•The THRA declares that it is a “discriminatory practice” for an employer to “discriminate against an individual with respect to compensation, terms, conditions or privileges of employment because of such individual’s race, creed, color, religion, sex, age or national origin.

The defendant’s answer-to-complaint’s response to all three legal claims states, “these allegations do not contained any assertions of fact, only conclusions of law; therefore, no response is required.”

The final three statements in the defendants’ answer-to-complaint state, “The plaintiff’s alleged injuries/damages were proximately caused by or contributed to by her own conduct, thereby reducing or barring her claim. This defendants deny they are liable to the Plaintiff in any form, for any amount, or any reason. The Plaintiff cannot demonstrate that, but for her race, the contract would have been renewed and the same decision would have been made irrespective of race.”

Dr. Hamlett and her attorneys have requested a jury trial. No date has been set for a hearing.

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