Lafollette attorney David Dunaway sat down last week with his client, former Forge Ridge school principal Marty Cosby, and the Claiborne Progress to discuss the pending lawsuits against the Board of Education.
Two civil lawsuits filed with Claiborne Circuit Court in June of last year allege wrongdoing by members of the county school board and others. Cosby, who was abruptly transferred from his longstanding position as principal of Forge Ridge School to Tazewell-New Tazewell Primary, claims malicious interference of his employment relationship by the named defendants in the two cases.
Cosby is suing the Claiborne County Board of Education as one entity and, in particular, school board members Brian Pendleton and Sam Owens, who is also the county finance officer. The civil action also names Connie Holdway, director of schools.
In one suit, Cosby alleges harassment by Holdway and humiliation by Owens.
“The defendant, Sam Owens, told certain individuals in the Claiborne County community that he personally wanted to humiliate the plaintiff (Cosby) as a result of the plaintiff having supported a candidate for county mayor in opposition to a county mayoral candidate supported by the defendant, Sam Owens,” one lawsuit reads, in part.
Owens allegedly threatened retaliation for the support Cosby gave Dennis Cook, rather than incumbent Jack Daniels, during the August 2014 election.
State law, Dunaway said, bars officials from using their position to harass, malign or oppress others.
“…Sam Owens told…that his job as the finance director was in jeopardy, presumably because, whoever was elected county mayor would have a lot of control over the finance director through the finance committee, which the county mayor is a member. As long as you control that committee, you control your destiny because you never leave – they don’t vote you in, they don’t vote you out,” said Dunaway.
Any business coming from the five member finance committee, Dunaway said, can be easily controlled if just three of those members are in agreement.
The lawsuit states Owens and Holdway, “with an attitude of indifference,” individually and collectively “in order to advance their own personal and political agenda,” maliciously planned economic harm to Cosby by transferring him some 22 miles from his employment.
According to Dunaway’s math, Cosby would have racked up some 10,560 miles each school year, losing an estimated $5,740 in fuel costs.
There is no documentation, Dunaway said, in Cosby’s personnel file to indicate a need for disciplinary action. There is nothing to suggest Cosby was ever insubordinate with Holdway or the previous director, he said.
“It’s our position that she (Holdway) could not transfer (Cosby) with the school district policies in place, other than as a disciplinary action. She was required to have ‘good cause’,” said Dunaway.
In exercising discipline, it is imperative it be fair, consistent and reasonable, Dunaway said, reading from the school policies.
“There are ways to discipline people and they did not pick the right way. Even if it had been true, which we say it is not true, there are guidelines to follow, which they didn’t follow. There is a Tennessee Teacher Code of Ethics that says, basically, that you should treat your fellow teacher employee as you would want to be treated,” said Dunaway.
Both defendants, Dunaway said, are being sued for official misconduct and official oppression.
“Those statutes say you cannot use your position in order to oppress or harass somebody, because you occupy that position. These are criminal statutes that carry criminal penalties,” said Dunaway.
According to the attorney, Holdway and Owens exhibited “outrageous conduct” for the intentional infliction of emotional stress.
Additionally, Owens is being sued for tortuous interference with Cosby’s employment relationship with the third party – the Claiborne Board of Education.
The document claims that Owens and Holdway violated state statutes including ones under the headings of Procurement of Breach of Contract Unlawful Damages, the Tennessee Teacher Code of Ethics, Public Officers and Employees, Employer Practices, Official Misconduct and Official Oppression.
Cosby also alleges he was discriminated against and deprived of equal opportunity under the Tennessee Human Rights Act when he was replaced by a person some 20 years his junior.
Cosby is seeking in this lawsuit compensatory and punitive damages not to exceed $1.5 million plus court costs and attorney fees. At the time of the initial filing, Cosby demanded reinstatement as principal of Forge Ridge School with all salaries and fringe benefits intact.
Since then, Cosby made the decision to retire from the Claiborne school system and move forward with a career in the John Maxwell Leadership Team.
The second civil suit, brought against Pendleton, alleges malicious and reckless disregard for the truth. According to the document, Pendleton made comments about Cosby’s Christian standing and leadership abilities. The suit alleges Pendleton spread false rumors that Cosby had “done something bad.”
“In this day and time, and the problems we have with terrorism in this country, to suggest someone’s not a Christian will immediately put you in a bad light,” said Dunaway.
“The defendant (Pendleton) also made statements to the plaintiff’s (Cosby) family and friends that the plaintiff was vindictive, that the plaintiff’s staff was in fear of him, and that the plaintiff was selfish, only wanting what was best for the plaintiff,” the lawsuit reads, in part.
At the time, the lawsuit alleges, Pendleton was aware his statements about Cosby were false and defamatory.
“He communicated these things all across (Claiborne county) to intentionally embarrass and humiliate Mr. Cosby. We say his (Pendleton’s) utterances were filled with fabrication and misrepresentations. The statements were made in such a way as to place him in a false light and to make the community, his fellow workers and those under his supervision think less of him,” said Dunaway.
Cosby is asking the court to grant additional compensatory, punitive and pecuniary damages not to exceed $700,000 in this second lawsuit against Pendleton.
This lawsuit was filed separately because Pendleton allegedly committed these acts outside the scope of his official capacity on the Claiborne school board.
According to Dunaway, a letter was sent to Cosby from Holdway, dated Nov. 24 of last year, requesting the return of school keys and equipment.
Dunaway said the case is moving forward, but he considers it to be still “in its infancy.”
Due to legal advice, none of the defendants in these two cases are able to comment at this time.
The Claiborne Progress is watching this case closely and will have more information as it becomes available.
Reach Jan Runions at 423-254-5588 or on Twitter @scribeCP.