A former Chattanooga police officer won $680,000 in his lawsuit against the city but not what was most important to him — his job back.
Mickel Hoback and his attorneys, Phillip Lawrence and Michael Richardson, thanked the jury for its verdict, saying it vindicated Hoback, but that more work remains.
“It’s still uncertain whether [Hoback] will ever be reinstated to his job,” Lawrence said.
Chief U.S. District Judge Curtis Collier ruled that the federal jury could award damages to Hoback but not give him back his job.
Hoback, who had been named “Officer of the Year” for Chattanooga in 2007, sought his job back with back pay and $1.5 million for damages incurred by the firing.
The federal jury awarded Hoback $130,000 in back pay, $330,000 in front pay and $250,000 for emotional suffering. Collier said that under the claim the city likely would pay Hoback’s attorneys fees.
The jury agreed with Hoback’s claim that the city had violated the federal Americans with Disabilities Act by firing him for post traumatic stress-related problems, following a city-hired pyschologist’s evaluation that the officer was unfit for duty.
Former Chattanoooga Police officer Mickel Hoback, right, leaves the Joel W. Solomon Federal Court Building Thursday with one of his attorneys, Michael Richardson. Hoback was fired in from the Chattanooga Police Department in 2009 and was awarded 680,000 in back pay and damages by a Federal jury today.Photo by Patrick Smith /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
“A lot of negative things were said about me and my character that I could not address at the time,” Hoback said in a written statement. “I am eager and waiting for the day I can get back to serving the citizens of Chattanooga as a police officer.”
The Hamilton County Chancery Court ordered Chattanooga to return Hoback to his former police officer job in February, but that state case is under appeal by the city.
Assistant City Attorney Phillip Noblett thanked the jury for its service and said his office’s next steps will be to file appeal motions in response to the federal case.
Attorney briefs to the Tennessee Court of Appeals are due in the Chancery Court case in October. The court could return a decision by December.
During the four-day trial, retired Chattanooga Police Chief Freeman Cooper testified that he fired Hoback on July 21, 2009, based on the psychologist’s evaluation that the officer was “unfit for duty” because of self-reported incidents related to his post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis following service in Iraq with the Tennessee Army National Guard in 2004-05.
On April 14, 2009, a series of events led to Cooper’s firing Hoback.
On that day, Hoback visited Michael Bearden, the counselor at the Chattanooga Vet Center who had been working for nearly two years on Hoback’s PTSD symptoms. Hoback wanted a change in a lithium prescription, and Bearden sent him to the nearby Veterans Administration Clinic for a psychiatrist to adjust the medication.
Dr. Estella Acosta briefly interviewed Hoback at the VA clinic and believed he was a suicide risk. She ordered him involuntarily committed to the VA Hospital in Murfreesboro, Tenn.
Hoback returned to Bearden, saying Acosta’s decision was a mistake. Bearden pleaded with Acosta to rescind, saying there was some misunderstanding. Acosta refused.
Bearden advised Hoback to drive himself to Murfreesboro. He did, but was released the next day after a VA psychiatrist at the hospital determined he was not suicidal. The psychiatrist wrote a letter stating Hoback could return to normal duties.
Under Cooper’s order, city-hired psychologist Donald Brookshire interviewed Hoback when he returned to Chattanooga and reviewed Bearden’s counseling notes. Brookshire testified that he found Hoback unfit for duty and that he “had a pattern of making excuses or explaining away incidents.”
Hoback requested a second evaluation and that doctor found him fit for duty but recommended conditions to monitor him. A third psychologist, paid for by the Police Benevolent Association when Hoback appealed his firing, also determined Hoback was fit for duty.
All three psychologists testified that Hoback “embellished” or “exaggerated” parts of his mental health problems to Bearden in a possible attempt to increase his VA disability benefits.
Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...