A 24-year employee of the county trustee's office has filed a federal lawsuit against trustee Tonya Davis and Bedford County, claiming she was fired for openly supporting Davis' opponent during last year's election.
Cynthia L. Ray claims that Davis and the county violated her 1st and 14th amendment rights, state rights, fired her in retaliation for exercising her constitutional rights, and intentionally inflicted emotional distress.
Ray is asking for a jury trial, plus damages for front pay, back pay, lost earning potential, lost benefits, unpaid vacation time, out of pocket expenses, pain and suffering, mental anguish, humiliation, loss of enjoyment of life, damage to reputation, and related damages plus interest. She is also asking to be awarded punitive damages to be set by a jury.
According to the federal suit, which gives only one side of a legal argument, Ray was employed in the Bedford County trustee's office from September 1986 until September 2010, also serving as office manager from approximately 1995 or 1996 until she lost her job.
Davis said Tuesday that due to the pending case, she could not make any comment on the lawsuit.
Davis had run for trustee in 2002 and 2006 but lost to Peggy Bush, whom Ray had openly supported in each election. Ray is Bush's daughter.
Bush did not run for reelection in 2010 and Ray openly campaigned for and spoke on behalf of Jason McGee, who was Davis' only opponent.
Ray took an active role in the campaign, contributing financially, assisting McGee with answering job-specific questions, preparing campaign ads, speeches and helping at rallies and fund-raisers.
While not at work, she wore McGee's campaign button on her shirt in the months leading up to the election, put placards on her vehicle, placed campaign signs for McGee around the county and visited local businesses on his behalf, as well as campaigning by telephone, walking door to door, campaigning at a number of public functions throughout the county and online on her public Facebook page.
On May 4, 2010, when the primary election was held, Davis observed Ray erecting campaign signs for McGee at a polling place, the suit said, adding that Davis was aware of Ray's campaign activities because they would encounter each other at public events.
The suit also claims that Davis made public proclamations that all persons working in the trustee's office would be retained in their jobs if she was elected.
Davis won the primary over McGee 3,742 to 2,946, and ran unopposed in the August general election.
The suit claims that a few days before Davis was to take office, Ray became aware of an important meeting with a local bank for Davis during the upcoming week. Ray claims she called Davis at her home and left a message to discuss and prepare for the meeting, however, Davis allegedly never returned the calls.
On Sept. 1, the first day of Davis' term, Ray said she reported to work early before the office opened. Davis allegedly arrived a few minutes later and told Ray "that her services were no longer needed and that she was being terminated."
Ray immediately asked for a separation notice explaining the reason for her firing, but Davis allegedly responded that she could either leave voluntarily or be removed from the office. Ray asked for the separation notice to be provided for her at the county finance office, gathered her personal belongings and left.
Ray claims that Davis nor the county gave her any reason why she was being terminated. She said she contacted the finance office over the next several days, inquiring about the notice and final paycheck, but received no reply.
A week later, payroll clerk Sherry Armstrong told Ray she had her final paycheck and notice, but Ray stated that the notice gave no reason for her termination, and that it was signed by Armstrong instead of Davis.
When Ray asked Armstrong why she and not Davis had signed the separation notice, Armstrong said she had filled it out and signed the notice "as instructed by her superiors," the suit claims.
Ray was the only employee of the trustee's office that openly supported McGee during the election, was the only person fired by Davis when she took office, and Davis did not present any plan to reorganize the office, the suit also claims.
Ray's work over the 24 years was described as "excellent and invaluable," the suit says, adding that she was promoted and given additional responsibilities on multiple occasions, was never reprimanded and received raises on all occasions they were available to employees.
She claims that since losing the job, she has encountered difficulty finding new employment, her health has suffered, and she has been subjected to undue stress and mental anguish, embarrassment, humiliation and loss of economic opportunities, as well as lost wages and benefits.
Ray claims that both Davis and the county worked a denial of her rights secured by the U.S. Constitution and the Constitution of Tennessee by firing her for exercising her free speech, which is described as "political speech and speech on matters of public concern."
She has no remedy available under Tennessee state law for her termination, and is claiming that the county and Davis acted with malice or with reckless disregard for her rights.
The suit claims that Ray was fired in retaliation for exercising her constitutional rights and that her exercise of those rights "was a substantial, if not only factor in Defendants' decision to discharge her." She also claims that Davis and the county intentionally and deliberately inflicted emotional distress on Ray by firing her in retaliation of exercising her free speech rights and right to free association.
"Defendants conduct was extreme and outrageous, beyond all possible bounds of decency and utterly intolerable in a civilized community," the suit says.
Ray is represented in this suit by attorney Allen Woods of Nashville.