Former Rutherford County EMS administrators Mike Nunley, James R. “Randy” White and Joe Haffner have sued the county government, claiming they were forced out of work earlier this year because of their age.
The men filed the lawsuit July 25 in Rutherford County Chancery Court. At the time of their departures this spring, their ages were: Nunley, 71; White, 58; and Haffner, 58.
Terry Fann, lawyer for the plaintiffs, said Nunley was forced to retire and the other two plaintiffs were fired.
The plaintiffs demand a jury trial and ask for compensatory damages for their income and benefits. They claim to have suffered embarrassment and humiliation. They seek compensatory and liquidated damages, and declaratory and injunctive relief, namely reinstatement to their old jobs as well as back pay, or as an alternative, an award of back pay, front pay, and compensatory and liquidated damages. Plus, they ask for reimbursement of legal costs. They also ask for reimbursement for any loss of retirement plan benefits, Social Security and other benefits.
Rutherford County attorney Nick Christiansen did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.
The lawsuit comes about four months after a large shakeup in the management of the Emergency Management Service and the beginning of a change in how the county operates emergency services.
As reported by the Murfreesboro Post on March 29, Rutherford County Mayor Bill Ketron described the departure of Nunley as a retirement. Nunley was on leave at the time and his retirement was reported to take effect on April 15. County Commissioner Pettus Read said White and Haffner were leaving, but did not say if they were retiring.
The departures came at a time Ketron told the media he was looking to make a number of changes to how the county manages emergency services. He eventually hired the first-ever public safety director to coordinate several departments.
The City of Murfreesboro also had complained publicly about an alleged lack of cooperation by Rutherford County EMS’ leadership, according to previous press reports. During a March 13 meeting, the council complained about what they said were unsatisfactory ambulance response times and EMS not wanting Murfreesboro Fire Rescue Department to respond to medical calls despite many firefighters having the training to do so.
However, the lawsuit says EMS’ response time declined under the plaintiffs’ leadership from 7.5 minutes in April 2018 to 6.6 minutes in April of this year.
During the spring, the City Council also announced plans to launch its own competing ambulance service but halted that effort. Around the same time, Ketron gave the go-ahead to place EMS dispatchers in the city’s dispatch center.
Fann said that with the removal of the three plaintiffs, the county lost more than 100 years’ experience. Each was more than qualified to direct EMS, and Nunley was probably qualified to serve as the new public service director.
The Rutherford County Commission on April 11 passed a resolution to honor Nunley’s 45 years’ service. He was too embarrassed to attend the meeting, the lawsuit said.
Fann said the resolution praises what a good job Nunley did in running EMS and was one of the most fascinating statements he has seen in an employment case.
Age discrimination alleged
According to the lawsuit, Nunley was hired by Rutherford Hospital in 1972, which was partly a county job, and he joined Rutherford County EMS in 1975, being named director that year and serving in that capacity for 45 years until April 15. He says Ketron gave him the choice to retire or be terminated.
The lawsuit says Nunley was never subjected to any discipline or written reprimands. His last performance review was nearly 12 years ago in August 2007 by former Mayor Ernest Burgess. Nunley’s salary was $109,000 plus benefits.
In a March 20 meeting with Ketron, the mayor told him to send him notice of his retirement, the lawsuit says. “The statement by the Mayor of the Defendant County was in direct reference to Plaintiff Nunley’s age, that being 71. Plaintiff Nunley was believed to be the oldest employee of Defendant Rutherford County when the Mayor made the statement.”
Nunley said he was not ready to retire and was told he would be fired if he did not do so, the lawsuit says. Ketron allegedly referenced former Lt. Gov. John Wilder and how he refused to retire but was forced out and had his legacy allegedly tarnished. Ketron allegedly told Nunley he wanted to give him “accolades, just like Lt. Governor Wilder, inferring that Plaintiff Nunley needed to just go along with the discriminatory, forced retirement and not fight it,” the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit says Ketron did not follow the county’s step discipline policy.
Nunley said he needed time to think it over, the lawsuit says. The following day, Nunley contacted the county’s human resources director to ask for another three to six months to continue to work but Ketron allegedly said he was “thinking about April 1.” Nunley objected, the lawsuit says. The next day, Ketron emailed all county employees saying Nunley would retire effective April 15.
Nunley had planned to work until Sept. 1, 2022, to mark nearly 50 years’ service in the government, the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit says White was fired on April 1 “without warning, due process, an employee evaluation, or utilization of the Defendant’s step discipline policy.” The deputy director, who had 38 years’ service, was called to the mayor’s office on March 27 to be informed of his termination, the lawsuit says. Ketron allegedly said he had done nothing wrong.
White’s salary was about $83,000.
Haffner worked for the county off and on from May 1982 and had nearly 35 years’ service, including the last four years as deputy director, the lawsuit says. He too was terminated allegedly without warning, due process, an evaluation or by the step discipline policy, the lawsuit says. He allegedly was called into Ketron’s office on March 27 to be told he would be terminated on April 1.
“The Defendant’s statements to the media and other that Plaintiff Nunley ‘retired’ and Plaintiff White and Plaintiff Haffner ‘resigned’ constitutes evidence of pre-text as those statements were false, misleading, and intended to mask unlawful discrimination,” the lawsuit says.
Ketron allegedly did not tell Haffner he had done anything wrong. His salary was about $83,000.
According to the lawsuit, Ketron told White the county was “going in a different direction,” which was contrary to the 2019-2020 EMS budget that had been submitted. The Public Safety Committee had not discussed the change. None of the defendants were told about such a change prior to their meetings with Ketron, the lawsuit said.
“Plaintiff Nunley was replaced as EMS Director by an individual less qualified than him who was also substantially younger,” the lawsuit said.
“The Defendant intentionally, willfully, and maliciously discriminated against the Plaintiffs based upon their ages,” says the lawsuit, which alleges violations of the Tennessee Human Rights Act and discrimination against the plaintiffs because of their age. The act protects workers who are older than 40.