Fourteen months after former City Manager Frank Parker filed his wrongful-firing suit against all five Statesboro City Council members and the mayor, a judge has scheduled a hearing over the defendants’ motions to have the case decided short of a trial.
By a 3-2 vote on June 24, 2014, City Council fired Parker over remarks he made at a meeting of city staff members five days earlier. Local attorney Daniel B. Snipes then filed suit on Parker’s behalf in Bulloch County Superior Court on Sept. 3, 2014.
Judge John R. “Robbie” Turner recently issued a notice that he will hear oral argument Oct. 26 on the defendants’ motions for summary judgment. This does not mean that the case will end there. Such motions are often considered in civil cases that still go to trial, and sometimes a few issues are decided after a hearing, leaving others for trial.
“Looking forward to Monday the 26th,” Snipes said Friday when called for comment, “I know that the city’s lawyers will do a very good job, and the council’s lawyers will do a good job, and we’ll leave it with Judge Turner.”
The complaint Snipes submitted last fall alleges that the city and its elected officials violated Parker’s contract and also the Georgia Whistleblower Act, which prohibits retaliation against public employees who expose lawbreaking by other officials. It also alleges that council members and the mayor slandered Parker and caused him severe emotional distress.
Parker’s formal demands include reinstatement and unspecified monetary damages. In a required pre-filing notice in summer 2014 that gave the city a chance to settle the claims, Snipes had asked for more than $250,000 on Parker’s behalf, but a dollar amount is not stated in the actual lawsuit.
The reason the council cited for firing Parker came from a June 19, 2014, city department head meeting. There, after Mayor Jan Moore commented that recent discussions on a pay raise for city employees had been contentious but necessarily public, Parker said that he had sometimes met privately with a majority of council members.
Moore’s and City Attorney Alvin Leaphart’s retellings of Parker’s statements, and Parker’s own explanation of them, were aired in public session during the specially called City Council meeting on June 24, 2014. Councilman Phil Boyum asserted that if Parker’s statements were true he had violated the Georgia Open Meetings Act and that if they were false he had slandered the council.
After a closed-door deliberation, as allowed under the law for personnel actions, the council returned to open session. Boyum’s assertion then formed the basis of a finding, which Moore read, for Parker’s dismissal.
Council split in court, too
Since March, the case has had two separate sets of defendants, although it remains a single lawsuit. Along with Moore, council members Boyum, Travis Chance and John Riggs, who voted to fire Parker, are still represented by attorneys R. Read Gignilliat and John D. Bennett of the Atlanta firm Elarbee, Thompson, Sapp and Wilson LLP. But council members Will Britt and Gary Lewis, who voted against firing Parker, are now represented by separate counsel, Phillip E. Friduss of Hall Booth Smith P.C. in Atlanta.
The attorneys for the two sets of defendants have filed parallel documents in what is now a more than 600-page pretrial record in the clerk of courts’ office.
In an Aug. 28 brief filed in support of Britt and Lewis’ motion for summary judgment, Friduss adopted all of the “undisputed facts” claimed by the other three council members and the mayor, but also noted some additions.
“The first and most important addition is that neither Britt nor Lewis voted for termination, both in fact officially opposing the motion to terminate,” Friduss wrote.
He then asserted that Britt and Lewis did not defame “or otherwise speak negatively,” of Parker, and that this would also rule out Parker’s claim of emotional distress where Britt and Lewis are concerned.
Meanwhile, Gignilliat’s motion for summary judgment on behalf of Boyum, Chance, Riggs and Moore asserts that each of Parker’s claims should be dismissed “due to a lack of record evidence in support of one or more material facts which are essential.”
Parker’s allegations of illegal meetings relate to conversations council members had while at Georgia Municipal Association conferences in Atlanta in 2011, 2012, 2013 and January 2014, and to a luncheon hosted by a local engineer, and attended by some council members, in Statesboro in April 2014. The attorneys for the city officials have asserted that the Parker was not acting as a whistleblower but made his comment for other reasons, and that the 90-day deadline to report an open meetings violation had expired for most or all of these gatherings.
In court filings, the elected officials also assert that any statements they made during a council meeting were “absolutely privileged,” or in other words, exempt from slander claims. For his part, Parker has asserted that he personally could not violate the Open Meetings Act because he was not a member of the council.
Also at issue is whether Parker was entitled under the city Code of Ordinances to 30-days notice of his proposed firing, plus time to reply and a public hearing before a final vote. That is stated as a requirement for dismissing a city administrator, and Snipes has asserted that Parker, as city manager, also fulfilled the prescribed role of administrator. But Parker’s firing was immediate.
After serving on an interim basis since October 2010, he had been city manager under an employment agreement signed June 14, 2011.
Gignilliat and Friduss had not returned calls from the newspaper Friday by the end of the business day.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.