Athens, Tennessee, denies rights abuses in response to former police chief’s lawsuit

Lawyers for the city of Athens, Tennessee, and its city manager deny allegations in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit filed in March by a former police chief alleging violation of his civil rights and retaliation by the city ​​manager for speaking out about the interference with his authority as chief.

Former Chief Cliff Couch has filed a lawsuit in United States District Court alleging violation of his First Amendment rights and accusing City Manager C. Seth Sumner of retaliating against him for speaking out against activities involving Sumner.

The lawsuit stems from a dispute between Couch and Sumner over the police chief’s claims that Sumner interfered with his authority as chief, pressured him to investigate a city elected official and retaliated against him for coming to other elected officials with his suspicions about Sumner by firing Couch. .

Staff Photo / Athens City Manager C. Seth Sumner speaks during a groundbreaking ceremony for the McMinn Center for Higher Education Friday, Sept. 27, 2019 in Athens, Tennessee.

Couch was fired in October as part of an Athens City Council investigation into disagreements between the two men. He seeks $2 million in compensatory and punitive damages and seeks to triple the award under specific guidelines which, if applicable and if the case is decided in favor of Couch, would bring the total to $6 million. , according to the lawsuit.

“On behalf of the City of Athens, Mr. Couch’s claims are dismissed as set forth in the City’s Response to the Complaint. The City intends to vigorously defend these allegations,” the lawyer for Athens said Wednesday. Sumner, Dan Pilkington, in an email.

A comment from the city attorney was similar.

“On behalf of Mr. Sumner, we support our response denying Mr. Couch’s allegations and intend to vigorously defend the case,” City Attorney Keith H. Grant said in a statement Wednesday. -mail.

(READ MORE: New police chief appointed in Athens, Tennessee)

In the lawsuit, Couch accuses Sumner of repeatedly crossing ethical lines, retaliating against him and other city employees for refusing to advance the city manager’s political agenda, and to have slowly removed the authority of the chief of police from 2019.

It was then that Sumner allegedly asked Couch to fix a citation he received in February of that year for having a loaded firearm with him at a Knoxville airport. Couch refused, the lawsuit says.

In his response to Couch’s lawsuit, Sumner adamantly denies violating Couch’s civil rights and, although he admits he had a gun that he unknowingly left in carry-on luggage at an airport of Knoxville, he denied asking Couch to correct the quote.

Couch accused Sumner of trying in May 2020 to get him to file wrongful charges against a local resident, but the judge did not sign a warrant in the case for lack of probable cause, Couch’s lawsuit says.

(READ MORE: Jury sides with Athens, Tennessee and city officials in First Amendment retaliatory case)

Sumner denied pressuring Couch to file the charges, but he did not deny Couch’s claim that the city manager held one-on-one meetings with Couch and others while driving in McMinn County in Sumner’s car, which Couch in his suit said “was both strange and intimidating.”

Sumner said in his response that he had no way of knowing Couch’s feelings about the practice.

During one such meeting on July 15, 2020, Couch claims Sumner began asking about Councilman Dick Pelley’s involvement in a federal lawsuit.

Sumner, however, denied wrongdoing and Couch’s characterization of the situation.

On Sept. 2, 2020, Couch called 10th Judicial District Attorney General Stephen Crump about some of the issues he was having with Sumner, the suit says. Sumner denies any knowledge of the meeting or the topics discussed.

Couch argues in the suit that Sumner told him in a one-on-one meeting a week later to put a positive spin on police department reports, presentations and state memoranda and accused Couch of brushing off a negative table of the department.

Sumner characterized the remark in his response that he told Couch, at the direction of the City Council, “to speak honestly and positively about his monthly reports to the City Council.”

In a September 30, 2020 meeting between Couch, Sumner and others acting as facilitators, Couch expressed concern that he was being asked to cross what he believed to be ethical lines in pressured to investigate Pelley and that he felt he could not run his department without interference from the city manager, the lawsuit says.

In his response, Sumner denies pressuring Couch or that his complaints are true.

The dissolving relationship between the city manager and the police chief continued to escalate in November 2020 when a surveillance camera in the police department lobby malfunctioned. A replacement was searched for in a supply closet and two Nest surveillance cameras were found missing, the lawsuit says.

The cameras are believed to have once been in the possession of the city manager, according to officers who last saw the cameras, and Couch launched an investigation after hearing discrepancies in accounts of what happened to the cameras , indicates pursuit. The two cameras then appeared in two different locations.

During the investigation of the Nest cameras, Couch again approached Crump to provide information about the cameras. Crump in early 2021 concluded there was a lack of evidence to charge Sumner with taking the cameras.

Meanwhile, Couch argues in the lawsuit that he continued to express concerns about retaliation from Sumner, and the feud between Couch and Sumner simmered for months in Athens.

In response, the city council called a meeting in August to discuss issues related to Sumner.

During the meeting, Sumner said he briefly had the cameras in his office when he was planning to buy home security for his wife for Christmas and returned them the next day.

He said they never left city property, the Chattanooga Times Free Press previously reported.

Couch’s lawsuit says he detailed Sumner’s retaliation allegations against him and informed council members of his own allegations that Sumner tried to get Couch to fix the citation and investigate a council member. municipal in office.

In his response, Sumner denied the allegations and accused Couch of misquoting and misrepresenting Sumner’s remarks at the meeting.

The August meeting was suspended after several hours. Illnesses and COVID-19 concerns delayed the resumption of the meeting until Oct. 18, the suit says. Ten days before this meeting was to take place, Sumner fired Couch.

During a work session on Oct. 11 — the same day Couch’s layoff was announced — Couch claims Sumner refused to answer questions about the layoff.

The response stated that “Sumner would not answer questions regarding Plaintiff’s dismissal based on counsel’s advice”, but denied Couch’s characterization, he “refused” to explain the reasons for the dismissal.

At the Oct. 18 meeting, Sumner again declined to give a reason for Couch’s dismissal, the suit says. As a result of this meeting, Sumner was suspended without pay for two weeks.

Sumner’s response denies any pattern of retaliation against Couch or that he also attacked city employees or department heads.

Contact Ben Benton at [email protected] or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.

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