Johnson Versus The City of Leadington

(LEADINGTON, MO) - The former City Clerk for the City of Leadington has filed a Federal lawsuit against current and former members of the city.  KFMO / B104 has confirmed with the attorneys representing former City Clerk, Denise Johnson, that a Federal lawsuit with multiple allegations has been filed in the Eastern District Federal Court in Downtown St. Louis on August 1st, 2019.

According to the lawsuit, Alderman Gary McKinney, Alderman Cassie Schrum, former Alderman Casie Braddy, former Mayor Dustin Winick, City Attorney Mark Bishop, and Mayor Pro Tem Debra Matthews have all been named as Defendents in the case.  

Johnson is alleging four counts in the lawsuit, including violation of First Amendment Rights, conspiracy to violate constitutional rights, violation of Missouri Public Policy, and violation of Missouri Whistleblower Statute. 

The lawsuit accuses on July 31, 2018, the board went into closed session and conducted official business of the city without properly notifying the public of the meeting. 

The lawsuit also alleges that on September 11, 2018, Alderman Schrum asked Johnson to change the minutes of the meeting that took place during the closed session of the July 31st meeting to portray things that apparently did not happen in that meeting.

The suit alleges that the requested changes were made only after Johnson secured advice from the Missouri Finance Officers Association, the Missouri Municipal League, and the specific prior advice of City Attorney Bishop. Johnson made the changes requested, but only by italics and cross-outs pursuant to the guidelines of the Missouri Finance Officers Association, the Missouri Municipal League, and on the prior advice of the city attorney.

The lawsuit indicates that the minutes of the July board meeting were changed again by the board after Johnson was terminated in October of last year.

The reason the July 31st, closed session meeting is of question, according to the lawsuit, is because Johnson reported during that meeting that the city court clerk, Tracey Fisher, was not being paid for her total hours worked. When the city attorney learned that the amount due was in the many thousands of dollars, according to the lawsuit he informed Johnson to be silent about the legal violations and further stated that Sunshine Law requests would not be honored should there be a public inquiry.

The lawsuit states the July 31st meeting minutes were continually changed by Alderman Schrum in alleged coordination and conspiracy with Alderman McKinney and the City Attorney Bishop. The minutes were apparently once again presented to the council in the October 9th board meeting with multiple changes. The lawsuit says one of the changes in the minutes was when Johnson's immediate supervisorm, and retiring City Clerk Debbie Eggers, recommended to the board that Johnson receive a pay raise and gave her excellent performance evaluations to the board. Those records were apparently wiped from the minutes.

The day after the October 9th meeting, Johnson reported to work and before she went to lunch, she learned of the termination from her employment by only two aldermen votes - one vote from Alderman McKinney and the other from Alderman Schrum.

The lawsuit alleges that multiple records have disappeared from city files, including service letter requests by Johnson seeking a statement of her job title, duties, terms of employment, and reasons for her termination.

Count one of the lawsuit: Johnson's First Amendment rights were violated because she was terminated based upon her exercise of the right as a private citizen to speak about an issue or matter of public concern regarding the improper payment of the city court clerk. Johnson's termination was an adverse employment action, approved and/or ratified by the defendants acting under color of state law as part of a broader conspiracy to protect McKinney, Schrum, and the City of Leadington by retaliating against Johnson for her protected speech in regard to a citizen's complaint and threats by McKinney.

Count two of the lawsuit: The defendants furthered the conspiracy by participating in it from its inception or by participating in the cover-up so as to insulate themselves and others from liability.

Count three of the lawsuit: Missouri courts have declared it to be against public policy to discharge an employee for engaging in constitutionally-protected activity and performing duties in strict accordance with Missouri law.

Count four of the lawsuit: The defendants violated the Missouri Whistleblower Act and Johnson was discharged from her employment only after she brought and called attention to the fact that the city was not paying an employee for the correct amount of hours worked on behalf of the city, among other things.

Johnson is asking that the court enter judgment in her favor against Alderman Schrum, Alderman McKinney, Mayor Winick, City Attorney Bishop, Alderman Braddy, Mayor Pro Tem Matthews, along with the City of Leadington for her "emotional pain and suffering, mental anguish, inconvenience, humiliation, embarrassment, loss of enjoyment of life, stress, and loss of reputation."

She is also requesting the defendants be ordered to pay punitive damages, as well as associated court costs and attorney fees, and any other additional relief that may appear to the court to be equitable and just under the circumstances.

KFMO/B104 will have more on this developing story as we get it.