State Appellate Court upholds Keller suit

By TIM SINIARD
Posted 2/17/19

A circuitous lawsuit between the city of Cleveland and a former city firefighter, who was fired by then-city manager Janice Casteel for “disgraceful personal conduct,” has resulted in a Tennessee …

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State Appellate Court upholds Keller suit

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A circuitous lawsuit between the city of Cleveland and a former city firefighter, who was fired by then-city manager Janice Casteel for “disgraceful personal conduct,” has resulted in a Tennessee Court of Appeals ruling stating unlawful methods were utilized to terminate his employment.

In the Jan. 28 opinion, the court ruled Joshua Keller had “exercised reasonable diligence in mitigating his damages by returning to a prior field of work with a similar wage and pursuing additional training to further the success of his business. Accordingly, we reverse the decision of the trial court and remand for calculation of damages.”

According to court documents, Keller “argued that he has incurred a significant amount of damages in back pay and front pay as a result of his wrongful termination and requested damages in excess of $1 million.”

In addition, the court ruled that “regardless of whether the city manager acted with material evidence in support of her decision, the procedure utilized was unlawful because the person who made the termination decision also affirmed the same decision on appeal."

The court then ruled that Keller was entitled to relief and an assessment of damages.

According to court documents, Keller was arrested on Jan. 22, 2012, and charged with aggravated assault and reckless endangerment.

He was suspended without pay by then-Cleveland Fire Department Chief Steve Haun, remaining in effect until the criminal charges were resolved.

Keller pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor simple assault charge on Jan. 31, 2012. He was informed on Feb. 10 of Casteel’s decision to terminate him for “disgraceful personal conduct.”

According to a previous story published in the Cleveland Daily Banner, “Keller appealed the decision on Feb. 14 of the same year, and a hearing was held on March 1.”

Casteel notified Keller on March 20 that she was denying the appeal and upholding the termination, according to court documents.

Keller then filed a petition in Bradley County Chancery Court alleging violations of the Fifth and 14th amendments.

The case was sent to U.S. District court because of the federal question jurisdiction.

“That court ruled on June 20, 2014, that Keller had failed to establish a violation of rights, and sent the case back to Chancery Court for disposition of his remaining claims,” the article stated.

Additionally, “the federal judge ruled for the city that Keller had no protected interest in continued employment and granted the city’s motion for summary judgment; however, it declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over Keller’s additional state law claims and remanded them to Chancery Court.”

The city returned to Chancery Court, arguing there were issues that needed to be addressed by the Court of Appeals concerning “important employment issues raised by this case,” and asked for an interlocutory appeal.

Judge Jerri S. Bryant had ruled on May 29, 2015, that the city’s disciplinary and appeals procedures at the time of Keller’s dismissal was “unlawful.”

On Sept. 14, 2015, Bryant issued an order allowing the city to file its case with the state appellate court.

In its Oct. 19 ruling, the court ruled Bryant’s order granting interlocutory review “is insufficient to provide this court with jurisdiction ... because it does not specify the legal criteria making the order appealable.”

The judges also ruled the order failed to identify “the issues” for which the review was granted.

During the appellate court hearing, John Mckinny, a vocational evaluator, testified  Keller had no “reasonable expectation to obtain employment as a firefighter given the fact  he had not received responses to applications he had submitted to other area fire departments, and  he “could not get a personal or occupational reference from the City of Cleveland.”

McKinney also “noted that it had also been approximately four years since [Keller] had performed in that field” and that “he believed that a vocation in the carpentry or HVAC industry was a viable option given Petitioner’s prior work history and subsequent HVAC training."

McKinney stated that average pay in the fields in which Keller was now working averaged approximately $25,432.

He said Keller "agreed that there was a potential for benefits but that there was little likelihood that he would obtain the same level of benefits he enjoyed while working for the City of Cleveland," the court document stated.

Additionally, McKinney estimated that as a result of the termination, [Keller] experienced an annual loss of approximately $20,082, for a total loss of $90,369 over a four-and-half-year period, not including benefits,” according to court documents.

McKinney said pay for an experienced firefighter was approximately $45,541, with the average pay for entry level jobs in the carpentry or HVAC fields was “approximately $25,432."

He said Keller’s “annual loss would decrease as Keller obtained experience in his new field and earned a higher wage, namely between $35,200 and $36,200, representing the average range for an experienced worker.”

He also estimated that [Keller] “would then experience an annual loss of approximately $9,800, representing a future loss of earnings of approximately $253,820 over the course of his estimated work life expectancy of 25.9 years.”

The court stated that while Tennessee is an at-will state, city employment manual policies provided “all employees with the unequivocal right to an appeals process concerning said employment and further providing a corresponding right to judicial receives of such decisions.”

Ultimately, while Casteel had the authority to terminate Keller’s employment with the city, the court stated she did not have the authority to affirm her decision on appeal.

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