Age discrimination settlement costs tax dollars

Betty Bean
Government/Politics columnist

Donald Trump is not the only Republican officeholder who’s got a problem with women.

Knox County’s clerk of Criminal and Fourth Circuit courts, Mike Hammond, has a pattern of behavior that recently cost county taxpayers almost $200,000.

The latest scrum was the settlement of an age discrimination lawsuit brought by two female supervisors whom Hammond fired shortly after taking office in September 2014. The firings of Debra Sewell, 62, and Jean Smathers, 68, cleared the way for Hammond to hire or promote younger individuals.

They probably would have won at trial, but trials are expensive and uncertain and three years is a long time to wait for compensation, so they settled. Smathers received $57,500, Sewell got $65,000 and Knox County paid their attorney, Jeffrey C. Taylor, $28,100.50 per client.

Hammond could have avoided this with better personnel practices. Richard Julian, manager of Knox County’s human resources department, said the employee handbook clearly outlines procedures for a progressive discipline procedure. (Hammond has opted his office out of the county’s HR department.)

“Do an annual performance review,” Julian said. “If you want improvement, put it in writing.” The next steps are verbal warning, written reprimand, suspension up to 10 days without pay and termination.

“I can’t imagine why anyone would not go through these steps,” Julian said. Another way to terminate is simply to abolish an unneeded position.

Hammond gave no reason for the terminations initially, but when the women filed suit in March 2016, he denounced them for running a disorganized, chaotic office permeated by a “circus atmosphere” that allowed lawyers free run of the place.

This accusation was puzzling, even infuriating, to many lawyers who used the office.

Fourth Circuit Court was the domain of Judge William Swann, who retired in 2014. His penchant for issuing orders of protection brought massive, angry and often unruly crowds to the City County building on Thursdays, where feuding parties waited for their cases to be called. Extra security was required, and OP Thursdays were dubbed “good love gone bad” days.

Hammond has said the office is running more smoothly now, but a veteran lawyer who has handled divorce cases for decades said any changes in the office culture are due to Swann’s successor, Judge Greg McMillan.

“You need look no further than the judge who sat in Fourth Circuit for 30 years for creating whatever atmosphere was there. The judge sets the tenor,” the lawyer said.

“Ms. Sewell and Ms. Smathers were the go-to people in that office. When you needed a question answered or something done, you went to them. I’d say they have more friends in the courthouse than Mike Hammond. This was a debacle. He took that office’s institutional memory out in one day.”

Clashes with women are becoming a hallmark of Hammond’s post-county commission career (he is a career radio broadcaster who served as a county commissioner for 10 years).

He ran unopposed in 2014 after unleashing a barrage of withering attacks on his predecessor, Joy McCroskey, who chose not to stand for re-election.

Next he took aim at the county’s other court clerk, Cathy Quist Shanks, who heads operations for the balance of Circuit Court as well as Juvenile and General Sessions courts.

Late last year, in a memo to Mayor Tim Burchett marked “Confidential,” he outlined a plan to consolidate his office with that of Shanks. She quickly criticized his plan, saying he was trying to make himself a “super clerk” who would control hundreds of jobs and a massive budget. Hammond retreated.

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