Everything you need to know about the 19 biggest lawsuits facing Rutherford County (2021 edition)

Oct 28, 2021 at 11:15 am by Michelle Willard

The gavel of justice

With all the bad press around the illegal jailing of children and the lawsuit about that, one Voice reader got to wondering and poking about trying to figure out what other legal woes the Rutherford County might be facing.

That's how the "Rutherford County Litigation Compilation List" was found. The list was presented to the Rutherford County Steering Committee at its Aug. 2 meeting and recorded as part of the committee's minutes.

Also this list isn't exhaustive, there are sometimes condemnation cases filed where the County is a defendant for tax purposes only and they are not listed.

Now that the boring stuff is out of the way. Here's the list with addition information that I've gathered from previous reporting or the Google.

The suit everyone is talking about

Filed July 7, 2017, this case originally arose out of the Hobgood Elementary School arrests in 2016.

Several suits came from the illegal arrests of 10 Murfreesboro City Schools elementary students, aged 6-12 years, who were falsely arrested and taken to jail. The students from three different schools were arrested after a video of an alleged bullying incident was found. The students from Hobgood Elementary were arrested, handcuffed and placed in police cars at school. The charges were eventually dropped for lack of evidence.

Two of the cases against the county were settled for more than $80,000 each.

In June, the remaining cases were converted to an $11 million class action suit that alleges Rutherford County maintains an illegal “always arrest” policy involving juveniles arrested on misdemeanors and that the RCJDC has an unlawful “filter system” as to how it determines whether a minor should be detained or released.

This case was originally styled as Martin v. RC, but was later merged with another case after an amended complaint was filed and is now known as KW, et al v. Rutherford County, et al..

The deadline to apply to be a part of the class action suit is Friday, Oct. 29. Nashville-based law firm representing plaintiffs is Brazil Clark. They can be reached at 615-730-8619, 615-265-1571 or info@brazilclark.com.

Side note: A 2019 case stemming from a separate incident resulted in a $250,000 settlement with the family of a boy with developmental disabilities who was held in solitary confinement.

RELATED: Opinion: Racist practices are costing us dearly in legal fees

Suits about the county's pre-trial release policy

In October 2020, Grumpy’s Bail Bonds and five other bail bond companies filed suit in the U.S. District Court's Middle Tennessee district against the county, Rutherford County District Attorney and 16th Judicial District of Tennessee challenging the “local bail bondsman rules” and the “pre-trial release” program implemented in Rutherford County.

In 2019, the Rutherford County Commission approved the pre-trial release of first-time offenders charged with non-violent offenses. Commissioner Robert Peay Jr. said at the time that the policy would reduce population pressure on the Rutherford County Adult Detention Center and the need for the county to build a bigger jail.

The companies, which are Norton Bonding, Grumpy's Bail Bonds, Hurst Bail Bonding, AAAA Bail Bonding, Freebird Bail Bonds and Jail Busters, allege that the policy violates their constitutional rights in Grumpy’s Bail Bonds, Inc., et al v. Rutherford County, Tennessee, et al.

After the suit was filed, the county filed a Motion to Dismiss. The plaintiffs were allowed to amend their complaint once as a matter of right. The county responded by filing another a Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs’ Amended Complaint. The case is still pending.

One of the objections given by the bonding companies is that pre-trial release could make the community less safer, which is the basis of Garber, et al. v. Rutherford County.

The family of murder victim Adrienne Cox is suing the county for the pre-trial release of Steven Lokey. A convicted felon on parole, Lokey was released with no bond from the Rutherford County jail pending charges of felony auto burglary.

Lokey should not have been eligible for pre-trial release. The program is specifically for first-time, nonviolent offenders. Lokey's prior history of felonies should have excluded him from the program.

That's why Adrienne Cox's family brought a negligence claim against Rutherford County alleging that Rutherford County improperly released Lokey from the jail, resulting in Cox's death in Shelbyville.

Side note: Lokey was given additional charges after a woman attempted to smuggle methamphetamine into the Bedford County Jail. She dropped off a King James version of the Bible with the meth concealed in the spine. That explains all his face tattoos (below).


Employment suits against Rutherford County

You may remember that a lifetime ago, otherwise known as 2019, that former Rutherford County Emergency Medical Services Director Mike Nunley and two others filed an age-discrimination lawsuit against Rutherford County Mayor Bill Ketron.

In Mike Nunley, et al. v. Rutherford County, Tennessee, filed July 25, 2019, in Rutherford County Chancery Court, the alleges he was forced out during a reorganization of the county's emergency services because he was 71 years old.

"While the defendant attempted to characterize plaintiff Nunley's termination as a 'retirement,' plaintiff Nunley was told that he could take his 'retirement' or be terminated," Nunley's attorney Terry Fann told the DNJ way back in 2019. James R. “Randy” White and Joe Haffner are also listed as plaintiffs. Both men are 58 years old and were fired by Ketron on April 1, 2019.

On Oct. 25, 2019, former Rutherford County Recovery Court counselor Melissa Kilpatrick sued the county because she says she was passed over for promotion in favor of Rutherford County Commissioner Steve Ervin.

Similarly Kay Jernigan, who is the the first woman in Tennessee’s history to achieve the Fire Officer IV certification and had achieved the professional designation of "Chief Fire Officer," filed in October 2019 in Rutherford County Chancery Court a sex discrimination. She also alleges that she was not interviewed or hired for the Rutherford County Public Safety Director position because she is a woman.

In the Rutherford County Court Clerk’s Office, two former employees filed suit against Circuit Court Clerk Melissa Harrell for violating the Tennessee Human Rights Act.

Plaintiffs Nicholas Trail, who lives with cerebral palsy, brought a disability discrimination claim and a claim under the Tennessee Public Protection Act.

Plaintiff Stephen LeQuire filed a claim of sexual discrimination and a claim under the Tennessee Public Protection Act. LeQuire Claims he was harassed by female coworkers and told by management to ignore the comments.

Robert Williams v. Rutherford County, et al., which was filed in June 2021 in Rutherford County Chancery Court, involves certain employment law related claims brought under the Tennessee Public Protection Act by another former employee of the Rutherford County Clerk’s Office. Williams claims he was retaliated against for blowing the whistle on Harrell not refunding overpayment of fees.

In Jacquelyn Iacono, et al. v. Rutherford County EMS, et al., which was filed in March 2020 in Rutherford County Circuit Cour. Former paramedic Iacono was riding as a passenger in an ambulance that was involved in a motor vehicle accident. Plaintiff has brought a negligence suit against the County under, as well as the other individuals involved in the accident.


Suits against the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office

There are always a bunch of suits from inmates against the Sheriff's Office for conditions in the jail.

For example, three former inmates have filed negligence for injuries sustained while at 940. Howard Baer is alleging he was injured when a bunk bed in his cell allegedly fell on top of him. Peggy O’Neal claims she was advanced in age and in poor health and was left unattended in the “inmate-attorney” discussion room at the Judicial Building when she lost consciousness, fell, and allegedly sustained head injuries. Sombiengkeo Rajvongs claims her finger was injured when a ring was being taken off her finger upon intake and also that her arm was injured by a jailer who was her to her feet after she fell to the ground on a separate occasion.

Another, Estate of Christopher Mullins v. Rutherford County, et al., is from an officer-involved shooting. Mullins was in the middle of a manic episode and inflicting self harm when his wife called for help, according to news reports. Multiple Rutherford County deputies arrived, shot Mullins after commanding him to stop cutting himself and released a K9 on him, resulting in his death.

His family, led by his mother Tina Mullins, Pbrought a wrongful death / civil rights claim against Rutherford County, Sheriff Mike Fitzhugh, John Doe deputies, and certain City of Murfreesboro defendants. The suit alleges that the decedent was wrongly shot and killed by law enforcement officers. The complaint alleges wrongful death and violations of the 4th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

The county is still dealing with the fall out of the misguided Operation Candy Crush. Rieves et al. v. Town of Smyrna, Rutherford County, et al. is one plaintiff remaining in the federal case.

In February 2018, DA Jennings Jones obtained indictments for 21 individuals and charged them with felonies for possessing and selling a schedule VI drug, in the form of cannabidiol, a.k.a., CBD, at 23 stores across the county.

Named "Operation Candy Crush," the saga began when Smyrna Police Department officers bought items containing CBD and SPD had them tested. The TBI tests came back as a schedule VI substance. So more officers were dispatched across the county. TBI also cannot determine how much THC might be in the products either.

Jones presented the TBI's findings to a Rutherford County Grand Jury that then indicted the store owners, which resulted in the arrests and the seizure of a significant amount of cash. Within a few days the charges were dropped and the lawsuits were filed after the products were determined to be legal.

The county settled the cases earlier this year with 16 of 17 plaintiffs for $1.3 million.

Other suits against the Sheriff's Office:

Smart Communications v. Rutherford County, et al. was filed in August 2019 in U.S. District Court. Plaintiff alleges that the RCSO is using software that allegedly infringes on their patent. Smart Communications provides "kiosk-based electronic messaging to County jail facilities, and the first to provide offsite postal mail processing with electronic delivery," according to its website.

Roscoe Sanders, et al. v. Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office is another employment discrimination suit against the county. Three plaintiffs – Roscoe Sanders, Kerry Nelson, and Ronnie Ralston – allege discrimination in a promotion process related to a particular sergeant position at the Sheriff’s Office. Sanders claims he was discriminated against based upon his age and race. Nelson and Ralston claim they were discriminated against based upon their age.

Stephen Novatne v. Elrod, et al. is a pro se (unrepresented) plaintiff complaint alleging certain claims related to plaintiff’s conferment at the jail. The county recently filed a Motion for Summary Judgment asking that this case be dismissed. 

Suits against the entire state

Universal Life Church, et al. v. Wayne Nabors, et al.: Plaintiffs have sued the State of Tennessee and various County Clerks, including the Rutherford County Clerk, regarding the constitutionality of T.C.A. § 36-3-101(a)(2), which prohibits persons receiving online ordinations from solemnizing the rite of matrimony.

Gary Accord v. Anderson County, et al.: Plaintiff and a putative class have filed a class action complaint against every county in the State of Tennessee. The lawsuit alleges that Tennessee counties, through its general sessions courts, use Tennessee Highway Patrol "Affidavits of Complaint," which is a uniform citation form, as charging instruments for certain crimes. The complaint claims that the practice is unconstitutional and denies criminal defendants a judicial finding of probable cause and notice of charges that would otherwise be in an arrest warrant. We recently joined numerous other counties in filing a Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff’s Complaint.

Sections: Crime & Safety