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Ray suit vs. Davis, county dismissed

Friday, September 28, 2012

A federal lawsuit against the county and its trustee by a former county employee has been dismissed with prejudice.

Cynthia L. Ray had filed a suit against the county and trustee Tonya Davis in late 2010, claiming she had been fired for openly supporting Davis' opponent during that year's election.

She claims 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.

Dismissed

In February, a lawyer for the county asked that the suit be dismissed, claiming that Ray's job as business manager was a government position "where the employee could be terminated for political reasons, including political association."

Attorney W. Carl Spining also wrote that since Ray's position fell under the patronage exception for public employees, "she could be terminated on account of her speech," citing three cases argued before the U.S. Supreme Court.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Harry S. Mattice dismissed the federal part of the suit "with prejudice," meaning that it could not be refiled in federal court. Mattice also dismissed "without prejudice" the state claims in the case.

Suit history

Ray had been 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.

However, the county and Davis have previously stated that Ray was not "terminated." 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.

However, 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, the suit said.

Ray's suit detailed the active role in the campaign she took. Davis won the primary over McGee 3,742 to 2,946, and ran unopposed in the August 2010 general election. Ray claimed that on the first day that Davis took office, she was told "that her services were no longer needed and that she was being terminated."

Spining has said that Davis told Ray that "her services were no longer needed at that time," denying the "termination" part of the allegation.

Ray claims that she was the only employee of the trustee's office who 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 claimed.

Ruling

Mattice wrote that "(a)lthough there is significant dispute as to whether (Ray) quit her position at the Trustee's office or was terminated from her position, it is undisputed that (Ray) did not continue work at the Trustee's office after September 1, 2010."

The judge cited "the Elrod-Branti exception," which states that certain public employees in confidential and policy making positions may be dismissed on the basis of their political affiliation without violating the First Amendment.

Mattice pointed out that the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals set aside four categories of positions that fall under the exception, ruling that Ray's job fell under both the second and third categories.

The judge noted that Ray held the ad hoc position of business manager, an office held in no other trustee's office, and that Ray "was hired by, and continued to work for, her mother for over twenty years while her mother served as the County Trustee."

"These two facts, while alone insufficient to establish the applicability of the Elrod-Branti exception, do suggest a strong likelihood that (Ray's) position was inherently political," Mattice wrote.