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Riverdale officer suing city for $2 million

By Ed Brock

A Riverdale police officer who was fired and rehired after making comments on the radio about allegations of racial bias in the department is suing the city for about $2 million.

Sgt. Phillip R. Neely also asks the court to make him Riverdale's chief of police.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Atlanta, names Riverdale City Manager Iris Jessie, Police Chief Thetus Knox and City Councilwoman Wanda Wallace as defendants in the suit. Also, Fayetteville attorney T. Michael Martin, who served as the city's hearing officer in Neely's appeal of his May 2004 termination, is also a defendant.

Knox referred comment to City Attorney Deana Johnson. Johnson said she couldn't comment on pending litigation. Jessie also said she could not comment on pending litigation. Wallace and Martin did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Neely, a member of the department since 1998, was a captain in February 2004 when he came on a radio show hosted by DJ Coz Carson and discussed allegations of racial discrimination in the department and an investigation of those allegations that the U.S. Department of Justice conducted in 2003.

According to the lawsuit, Neely made similar comments during a town hall meeting in March 2004. Then Chief Mike Edwards initiated an investigation into Neely's comments and in March Neely filed a charge of discrimination and retaliation with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, according to the lawsuit.

Shortly after that Edwards suspended Neely and demoted him to sergeant, but the day after Edwards rescinded both actions and placed Neely on indefinite administrative leave. While Neely was on leave in May 2004 Sylvester Murray, the city's co-city manager at the time, fired Neely. Neely appealed and the city appointed Martin to hear the appeal over objections from Neely.

Neely's suit claims Martin's appointment was illegal because Martin had served as judge for the city and as personal legal advisor for Councilman Rick Scoggins and previous Mayor Mary Lee.

Sylvester said at the time that Neely was terminated in connection with the investigation into the comments he had made on Carson's program.

Martin reversed the city's decision to terminate Neely but did recommend that he be placed on suspension for three days because he had made comments to the media. In the lawsuit Neely claims that that suspension was illegal in part because he was not properly notified.

Also, Neely claims that he was denied promotions to chief due to his race and the comments he'd made about discrimination in the department. He claims that Knox, Jessie and Wallace denied him a promotion to assistant chief for similar reasons.

Over a period of time Neely filed a total of five EEOC complaints.

He says in the suit that Knox continued to harass him and finally Knox, Jessie and Wallace demoted him again from captain to sergeant on March 2, 2005, "and replaced him with a less qualified white female."

Neely claims the discrimination cost him $100,000 in lost wages and benefits he would have received if promoted to assistant chief, interim chief or chief of police. He also says he paid $100 for medical expenses he claims resulted from the discrimination and retaliation he received from the department.

He wants $1,500,000 from the city "to compensate him for past, present and future emotional distress, embarrassment and humiliation" and $500,000 in punitive damages along with his legal fees.

Along with the demand for a court order to make him Riverdale's chief of police, Neely wants an order to make him assistant chief and an order to reinstate his rank as captain.

The city has 20 days to answer the suit.