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Riverdale files answer in lawsuit

By Ed Brock

In court documents the city of Riverdale claims that a $2 million discrimination lawsuit against the city should be dismissed.

Among other reasons, the city claims that last November Sgt. Phillip R. Neely signed a release regarding most of the accusations in his lawsuit as part of a settlement with the city.

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.

In it Neely claims he was demoted and denied promotions due to his race, gender and the fact that he spoke publicly about allegations of discrimination at the Riverdale Police Department.

Knox was not available on Monday but previously referred comment to City Attorney Deana Johnson.

Johnson said 90 percent of the claims in Neely's current lawsuit were included in the "General Release and Indemnity Agreement" he signed on Nov. 2, 2004. At that time Neely received $95,000 to settle two complaints he had with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and a previous lawsuit.

In a motion to have the lawsuit dismissed Johnson also states that the remaining accusations cannot be filed against Jessie, Knox, Wallace and Martin as individuals but only against the city of Riverdale.

Also, the city's answers to the lawsuit, in which it categorically denies all of the accusations in the lawsuit, claims Neely did not file his complaint with the EEOC in a timely fashion.

"You have 180 days from the allegation to file with the EEOC," Johnson said. "A lot of these charges are alleged to have happened a long time ago."

Neely's attorney Michael King said he has filed a motion to get more time to respond to Johnson's motion.

"We need time for discovery to determine if that settlement is indeed enforceable."

King also said that the incidences that occurred after the settlement and before the settlement showed a pattern of "retaliatory and discriminatory conduct on behalf of the officials."

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."

In its answers the city also claimed to have "legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for all employment decisions made relating to" Neely and that Neely failed to exhaust his administrative remedies because he didn't raise the accusations in his personnel appeal hearing.

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.

Johnson said there has not been a decision made yet on her motion to dismiss.