Former Hawkins Central Dispatch Director files federal age,sex discrimination lawsuit over termination

911 Board Chairman Mike Herrell (left) and Central Dispatch Director Gay Murrell (right) are seen here at the January 2020 board meeting.

Former longtime 911 Central Dispatch Director Gay Murrell has filed a federal lawsuit alleging breach of contract as well as age and sex discrimination over her March 2020 termination.

The lawsuit was filed in early March in the U.S. District Court Eastern District of Tennessee in Greeneville.

Murrell worked for Hawkins Central Dispatch for 27 years and spent the last 19 as the director. The 911 board voted at their March 12, 2020 meeting to terminate Murrell for breach of contract.

At that meeting, then Chairman Mike Herrell reported to the board that Murrell had allowed dispatchers who had not yet obtained EMD (Emergency Medical Dispatching) certifications to answer emergency 911 calls.

An EMD program is administered under the direction of a medical director (medical doctor or physician’s assistant).

When a person calls 911 with a medical complaint, the dispatcher goes to a complaint guide card and it directs the dispatcher to ask specific questions about that person’s complaint.

Depending on how the questions are answered results in how the dispatcher sends an ambulance — emergency or non-emergency.

Someone who is not EMD certified is basically a lay person advising an ambulance if they need to respond emergency or non-emergency to a medical complaint, the Review’s source said.

Though all staff were back in compliance with EMD certifications in just a few days, the board noted at the time that this process cost Hawkins Co. Emergency Communications Department (HCECD) around $8,800 and could easily have led to legal ramifications.

As a result of these actions, the board concluded that Murrell had breached her contract and voted 6-1 to terminate her.

Lawsuit alleges board didn’t have “good cause” for termination

The lawsuit, which was filed by Morristown attorney Braxton Terry, alleges that, “On March 12, 2020, without any warning or prior notice, [the board] abruptly terminated [Murrell’s] employment as Director.”

It also alleges that, prior to her termination, Murrell “had not been counseled or issued any written warnings for policy or procedure violations” and “had not violated any of [the board’s] policies as Director.”

It further states that the board did not have “good cause” to terminate Murrell, who was awarded unemployment benefits last July by the Appeals Tribunal of the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

The lawsuit quotes from the Appeals Tribunal’s decision, noting that, “At the Appeals Tribunal hearing, little, if any, evidence was presented by the Employer that the Claimant [Murrell] was either insubordinate or failed to follow the Employer’s policies.”

Murrell’s employment contract with the 911 board had specified that, in the event of termination without “good cause,” Murrell would be paid a lump sum of severance in the amount of salary she would have received until the end of her contract, which was set to expire on Oct. 1, 2022.

The contract did note that, in the event of termination with cause, the Director would not be paid any severance pay.

Through the lawsuit, Murrell is seeking pay and benefits she would have received from the severance agreement as well as interest and compensatory damages for the 911 Board’s “indifference to Murrell’s protected rights.”

The lawsuit also alleges that Murrell has suffered “lost wages, lost benefits, lost interest on wages and benefits, inconvenience, embarrassment, humiliation, anguish, loss of lifetime earning capacity.”

Sex, age discrimination

The lawsuit goes on to note that, after Murrell’s termination, the board “hired a significantly younger male who is known to have been in his late thirties” to replace Murrell.

As the Review previously reported, the 911 board voted in April of 2020 to hire Douglas Boone as the new director.

The 911 board received a total of seven applications when the position was advertised, but the board’s personnel committee narrowed this list down to three finalists. The board made the final decision after interviewing the three finalists on in a closed-door executive meeting. Boone received the majority, with a 5-2 vote.

However, Boone resigned from the position, effective on March 5 of this year. He noted in his letter of resignation that, due to an illness in the family, he desired to find a position closer to home.

The board is currently looking for a replacement director. Herrell told the Review that the board is set to interview three potential candidates on April 18.

Months of disagreement, conflict

Murrell’s termination followed months of disagreements and conflict between Murrell, members of the 911 board, and several Hawkins Co. officials.

As the Review previously reported, in September of 2019, Hawkins Co. Mayor Jim Lee refused to sign the Intergovernmental Cooperation Agreement between the county and Hawkins County Central Dispatch until Murrell released bank statements, credit card statements and salaries to Lee.

911 Board member and Tennessee Highway Patrol trooper David Good told the board in September of 2019, “I was talking to Mayor Lee before I came here. I’m going to tell you word for word what he wanted me to tell you. He said that, as long as Gay is 911 director and still employed here, he will not sign the contract.”

After some back-and-forth, Good added, “Well, like I said, that’s what he said. The fact that she (Gay Murrell) can’t ever get a budget done right and has never passed an audit in the last several years. He’s just not going to sign it …”

“Until I’m gone?” Murrell asked.

“Yep,” Good replied.

However, when the Review spoke with Lee, he explained, “I can’t fire Gay Murrell. That’s not my job — that’s the board’s job if they decide to do that. I’d like to see her records and then we’ll move forward. If we look at it and everything looks good, we’ll move on, we’ll go with the contract (between Murrell and the 911 board that governs her employment). If not, we’ll stop and correct the problem.”

When the Review spoke to Murrell at the time, she explained “we (Central Dispatch) has never failed an audit. We had one finding. As with any other audit, it is on the comptroller’s website. It’s all there. It’s public record. Everything is public record. It’s all right here. What is spent. Salaries. Everything.”

The records were given to Lee in November of 2019.

Lee later told the board in January of 2020 that he had turned in Central Dispatch bank statements for the past three years to the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury on Jan. 8, 2020, regarding unspecified “inconsistencies” which the Mayor claims he noticed in those documents. This investigation has not yet been completed.