ATHENS, Tenn. (WATE) – A lawsuit filed against the City of Athens and City Manager C. Seth Sumner seeks $2 million in damages over claims that the dismissal of the city’s chief of police last year was retaliatory and politically-motivated, violating state and federal law.
Former Athens Police Chief Cliff Couch alleges in the lawsuit that Sumner abused his official power to advance his own political ambitions, retaliated against city employees when they refused to assist him in doing so, and defamed Couch before wrongfully terminating him in October of last year.
Sumner and the City of Athens are named as defendants in the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court. In it, Couch seeks $1 million in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages.
The suit alleges the official impropriety began in 2019 when Sumner received a citation for carrying a loaded firearm into an airport in Knoxville. Couch claims Sumner asked him if he could take care of the citation or if he knew someone who could. Couch refused to offer any assistance.
Couch also alleges Sumner repeatedly pressured him to use his investigative power to target political opponents.
The lawsuit alleges Sumner instructed city department heads to fill a 2020 city council meeting with people who would intimidate council members into voting for his budget proposal to amend the city charter to give the city manager emergency powers and the power to issue executive orders.
Couch also claims the city manager pressured him repeatedly to investigate a sitting city councilman in 2020 because Sumner believed the councilman was behind a previous federal lawsuit that had been filed against Sumner.
The lawsuit claims Sumner attempted to intimidate department heads by holding one-on-one meetings with them while Sumner drove them around town, sometimes for an hour or more. Sumner allegedly told Couch during one of these meetings that he, “expected Chief Couch’s loyalty” to him.
The refusal to cooperate in improper law enforcement activities led to Sumner undermining Couch’s authority and defaming Couch before he was fired in 2021, the lawsuit claims.
Couch said Sumner improperly intervened into police investigations. He claims Sumner attempted to shut down an investigation into two cameras that had gone missing from the police department after a different officer told Couch he had been instructed by the city manager to remove them.
After the camera issue, Sumner allegedly changed the focus of the city investigation into the police department in order to unfairly blame Chief Couch for problems in the police force and obscure Sumner’s influence on department activities that had grown in the months leading up to the probe.
An Aug. 10, 2021 city council meeting was held to address issues surrounding Sumner and the camera issue. Despite being told by City Attorney Chris Trew to send complaints of retaliation to him so they could be addressed with the council, Couch learned at the meeting that Trew instead sent them to City Manager Sumner.
Following Couch’s statements at the council meeting, Sumner engaged in a 2.5-hour monologue in which he accused Couch of several years of official misconduct and questioned Couch’s integrity in front of the city officials and Couch’s family. The meeting was adjourned before Couch could respond and ten days before he was set to respond to Sumner’s claims at an Oct. 18 council meeting, Couch was fired without warning.
The lawsuit also alleges Sumner ordered a human resources investigation into retaliation for the August meeting before his dismissal. Sumner reportedly refused to answer questions regarding Couch’s termination at an Oct. 11 council workshop.
Despite a request by Couch to Trew to invoke any administrative appeal rights he may possess, Trew and the city have yet to respond to the request to appeal the termination.
Following a special council meeting called on Oct. 18, Sumner was suspended two weeks without pay.
The suit claims Sumner’s actions deprived Couch of his First Amendment right to freedom of speech when Sumner retaliated against Couch for exercising his right to speak about a matter of public concern and defamed Couch with his statements at the Aug. 10 meeting and Oct. 18 special meeting.
Under Tennessee law, the City of Athens and other municipalities can be held liable if an individual with final policymaking authority for the municipality caused the constitutional violation. It also claims a violation of the Tennessee Public Protection Act and the Tennessee Public Employee Political Freedom Act.
As Mr. Couch’s complaints are now a matter of court, I believe it is in the people of Athens’ best interest to allow the facts to be exposed and stand on their own merit. We look forward to this issue being resolved in the near future.-C. Seth Sumner
Lieutenant Fred Schultz was appointed interim Police Chief following Couch’s dismissal. Schultz was officially appointed Chief of Athens Police on April 18.