A federal lawsuit has been filed in U.S. District Court against the City of Leadington, two sitting aldermen, a former alderman, the former mayor, the city attorney and the city's current mayor pro tem.
The lawsuit was filed on Aug. 1 on behalf of former City Clerk Denise Johnson, by her attorneys John H. Goffstein and Daniel Bruntragar, against Alderman Gary McKinney, Alderman Cassie Schrum, former Alderman Casie Braddy, former Mayor Dustin Winick, City Attorney Mark Bishop, and Mayor Pro Tem Debra Matthews.
The lawsuit lists four counts including violation of First Amendment Rights, conspiracy to violate constitutional rights, violation of Missouri Public Policy, and violation of Missouri Whistleblower Statute.
According to the lawsuit, Johnson was hired in May of 2018 as the city clerk for Leadington and served without incident or problem until July 31, 2018, when events took place that culminated in her wrongful discharge on or about Oct. 9.
The lawsuit alleges that, on July 31, 2018, the board went into closed session and conducted official business of the city without properly notifying the public of the meeting.
It states that later, on or about Sept. 11, 2018, Schrum requested that Johnson change the minutes of the meeting that took place in the July 31 closed session to manufacture events that did not occur during that meeting.
The changes in the minutes requested by Schrum were made only after Johnson secured advice from the Missouri Finance Officers Association, the Missouri Municipal League, and the specific prior advice of City Attorney Bishop. Johnson made the changes requested, but only by italics and cross-outs pursuant to the guidelines of the Missouri Finance Officers Association, the Missouri Municipal League, and on the prior advice of the city attorney.
The minutes of the July board meeting were changed again by the board after Johnson’s termination, according to the lawsuit.
During this time frame, in the unnoticed closed session of July 31, Johnson reported that the city court clerk, Tracey Fisher, was not being paid for her total hours worked, but when the city attorney learned that the amount due was in the many thousands of dollars, he informed Johnson to be silent about the legal violations and further stated that Sunshine Law requests would not be honored should there be a public inquiry.
The allegations state the July 31 meeting minutes continued to be altered and manufactured by Schrum in coordination and conspiracy with McKinney and Bishop and the minutes were again presented to the council in the Oct. 9 board meeting with several changes. The lawsuit lists an example of one such change in the minutes where in Johnson's immediate supervisor and retiring City Clerk Debbie Eggers recommended to the board that Johnson receive a pay raise and gave her excellent performance evaluations to the board. No mention of this favorable job performance for Johnson appeared in the minutes of the meeting where the public report took place.
The next day, on Oct. 10, Johnson reported to work and before the lunch period, she learned of the termination from her employment by only two aldermen votes - one vote from McKinney and the other from Schrum.
Many city records in regards to this and other instances are reported to have disappeared from city files, including service letter requests by Johnson seeking a statement of her job title, duties, terms of employment, and reasons for her termination, the lawsuit alleges.
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In count one of the lawsuit, it is alleged that Johnson's First Amendment rights were violated because she was terminated based upon her exercise of the right as a private citizen to speak about an issue or matter of public concern regarding the improper payment of the city court clerk. Johnson's speech, and more specifically, her private expression to members of the board that the city court clerk was not being paid correctly was a motivating factor and/or played a part in the defendants’ decision to fire her, the lawsuit claims.
It is further alleged in the lawsuit that Johnson's termination was an adverse employment action, approved and/or ratified by the defendants acting under color of state law as part of a broader conspiracy to protect McKinney, Schrum, and the City of Leadington by retaliating against Johnson for her protected speech in regard to a citizen's complaint and threats by McKinney.
The lawsuit's reference to threats made by McKinney is referring to a situation that allegedly occurred on Aug. 21, 2018, when a concerned citizen filed a public complaint at a city council meeting against McKinney, stating that the citizen had been libeled and slandered as well as physically threatened by McKinney over problems caused by the aldermen's faulty construction and improper supervision of apartment units within Leadington city limits.
It is alleged that Johnson was informally instructed by the city attorney to attach printouts of the concerned citizen's charges against McKinney and place them in the packets of each alderman for the record.
The lawsuit also claims that Johnson’s termination was retaliation for seeking the advice of the city attorney for the correct legal action for minute entries, and for her continuing to accurately report that which took place in open and closed sessions of the council as mandated by law.
Count one of the lawsuit further states that, upon information and belief, the city has a custom, practice or usage of punishing employees for the exercise of their First Amendment rights as evidenced by the termination and resignation of several city officials including the mayor, chief of police, prosecuting attorney, and all city staff workers with the exception of four police officers and several city clerks before and after the termination of Johnson.
Count two of the lawsuit alleges that the defendants conspired together and amongst themselves and as a result, reached a mutual understanding to protect McKinney and Schrum from public scrutiny by firing Johnson because of her protected speech.
Further stated in count two of the lawsuit is the claim that the defendants furthered the conspiracy by participating in it from its inception or by participating in the cover-up so as to insulate themselves and others from liability for their "outrageous and unlawful acts."
Count three of the lawsuit states that Missouri courts have declared it to be against public policy to discharge an employee for engaging in constitutionally-protected activity and performing duties in strict accordance with Missouri law.
Count four of the lawsuit claims that the defendants violated the Missouri Whistleblower Act and Johnson was discharged from her employment only after she brought and called attention to the fact that the city was not paying an employee for the correct amount of hours worked on behalf of the city and after she insisted upon a correct and accurate transcription of minutes pertaining to official city business.
In filing this lawsuit, Johnson asks that the court enter judgment in her favor against Schrum, McKinney, Winick, Bishop, Matthews, Braddy, and the City of Leadington for her emotional pain and suffering, mental anguish, inconvenience, humiliation, embarrassment, loss of enjoyment of life, stress, and loss of reputation.
Johnson further requests that the defendants be ordered to pay punitive damages, as well as associated court costs and attorney fees, and any other additional relief that may appear to the court to be equitable and just under the circumstances.