Hamlett, Morrison reap reward from city, school board actions
by Danny Wade
The city of Humboldt has twice been hit hard over the past several months with lawsuits. Although the city is the entity being sued, the fact is, elected boards are responsible for both of these lawsuits.
First, it was former city inspector John Morrison suing the city for his termination. A few months later, former director of schools, Dr. Versie Hamlett, filed suit against the city of Humboldt and the city of Humboldt Board of Education.
Both cases were settled out of court, with a payout of over a quarter-million dollars.
Morrison’s settlement was in the amount of $45,000 after he filed suit against the city of Humboldt, Mayor Marvin Sikes and three of the five city aldermen, Leon McNeal, Don Graves and the late Donna Johnson.
Dr. Hamlett’s case was ordered for mediation, which neither side could come to an agreement. Eventually, Dr. Hamlett settled for $215,000.
“I, nor my staff, did not create any of this (lawsuits),” said Mayor Sikes. “But we’re here to pick up the pieces.”
Mayor Sikes said the city’s insurance covered most of the settlement financially except for $5,000 per case. He said the city will pay for Morrison’s settlement not covered by insurance since the city board’s actions were responsible. The mayor said the school board would be responsible for $5,000 in Dr. Hamlett’s case.
Morrison’s suit, filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee Eastern Division, states Morrison’s termination was in violation of the right secured by First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.
During the March 11, 2019 city board meeting, aldermen Graves, McNeal and Johnson voted to terminate Morrison’s employment. Aldermen Bob Pruett and James Shivers voted against termination.
Morrison’s attorney, Mike Weinman, said that since Pruett and Shivers voted not to terminate, they did not violate Morrison’s rights and are not listed as defendants in the lawsuit.
During the March board meeting, former city attorney Terri Crider explained that the board has the authority to terminate but they must follow proper procedure according to the city personnel policy—the very policy approved by the city board.
Morrison was hired on or about June 29, 2015 as the building codes inspector/city building inspector. Within months, more duties were added as safety director and city project manager to his position.
As city inspector, Morrison took the state certification test multiple times and failed each time. Although he was never certified, the city used the services of Gibson County inspector Ricky Bailey.
While working as building inspector, the lawsuit states that under Morrison’s direction, the city passed audits performed by the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance.
One segment of the court document says members of the city board regularly communicated with Morrison and attempted to influence him to take actions in certain instances that would violate local building codes, ordinances, rules, regulations, laws and/or statutes applicable to various duties he performed. In addition, the lawsuits states Morrison regularly refused to take illegal action and explained why he could not do as requested. At times, one or more aldermen threatened to terminate Morrison’s employment. The lawsuit names Alderman Graves on two separate occasions where this happened.
The lawsuit further states Morrison’s termination did not follow the city’s personnel policies and procedures manual, which has a series of steps required prior to termination. None of the procedures were followed, according to the lawsuit.
Morrison and the city settled out of court. A settlement agreement was filed May 20, 2020.
In the agreement, the city paid Morrison $5,000 for lost wages. Payment to Morrison in the amount of $40,000 for compensation was made in two checks—one directly to Morrison for just over $20,000 and another made out to Weinman and Associates for just under $20,000 as Morrison’s attorneys.
In Dr. Hamlett’s lawsuit filed March 30, 2020 in United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee Eastern Division, she claimed a contract extension was not offered after she refused demands from school board member, Leon McNeal.
Dr. Hamlett’s attorney, Justin Gilbert explained that the city had to be listed as a defendant since Humboldt City Schools is part of the city.
The lawsuit stated McNeal demanded Dr. Hamlett must ‘clean house’ by firing qualified white educators and replacing them with black educators, according to the complaint. This is a violation of federal and state law.
“McNeal holds strong negative views about white educators. He supported Dr. Hamlett’s hiring because he believed—mistakenly—that she could become his tool to remove white educators in favor of blacks. He provided her names of white persons he wanted fired, and the names of black replacements, simply because of their race,” as stated in case documents submitted to federal court.
Dr. Hamlett would not be anyone’s tool for discrimination and that his views on race were decidedly different than hers.
On May 1, 2020, attorneys Flippin, Collins & Hill out of Milan, Tenn. filed an Answer to Complaint in federal court on behalf of the City of Humboldt and the City of Humboldt School Board. The Answer to Complaint denied McNeal made racist demands.
On Thursday, May 23, a teleconference was held with Judge J. Daniel Breen, along with attorney Gilbert and the city’s council, Michael Hill. Judge Breen ordered mediation between all parties on July 14 and the parties to report back with the results of that mediation on July 20.
“The parties were not able to agree on any satisfactory reinstatement scenario,” Gilbert stated after mediation. “A fair monetary sum was reached to avoid putting everyone through divisive hearings at the beginning of the school year.”
The settlement agreement was reached on August 5, 2020. Of the $215,000 settlement, Dr. Hamlett received $145,000 compensation for damages such as humiliation, embarrassment and pain, $5,000 was paid to Dr. Hamlett from the city school board for back wages after mitigation, and $65,000 paid in attorney fees to Gilbert Law, and to Spragins, Barnett & Cobb.
Public Entity Partners, the city’s insurer, covered both Dr. Hamlett’s and Morrison’s settlement and attorney fees.
Morrison and Dr. Hamlett had requested jury trials in their respective lawsuits.