Former Vidalia employees sue town, new mayor

Published 12:05 am Thursday, September 1, 2016

VIDALIA — Five former Vidalia employees have sued the town and new Mayor Buz Craft, alleging they were fired for supporting the former mayor’s reelection.

The lawsuit, filed earlier this month, alleges Craft terminated the five employees after taking office. Four of the five plaintiffs were hired during former mayor Hyram Copeland’s tenure and campaigned for Copeland this past spring.

Craft defeated Copeland in the mayor’s race during the spring and took office July 1.

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The plaintiffs are:

4 Kelly Butler, who was hired as an administrative assistant/audio-visual technician by Copeland in 2011.

4 Fay Garretson, who had been employed by Copeland as a deputy clerk/office manager since 1992. Copeland’s first term as mayor was in 1992.

4 Juanita Smith, a receptionist/convention center coordinator, was hired by Copeland in 2014.

4 Teresa Dennis, the director of project development, was hired by Copeland in 2010.

4 Mary Knight, was hired as a utility clerk by Copeland in 2001.

The five former employees are represented by Attorney Russell A. Woodard Jr. of the firm Breithaupt, Dunn, Dubos, Shafto & Wolleson LLC of Monroe.

Town Attorney Scott McLemore said Wednesday James Pate of the Lafayette law firm Neuner Pate would represent Vidalia. As Craft was acting as mayor of the town in his official capacity, his representation will be tied to the town, Craft said.

Craft said Wednesday he was advised by legal counsel to not comment on the case.

The lawsuit alleges the plaintiffs’ terminations violated their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Their campaigning for Copeland was a matter of free speech and their firings were the result of unconstitutional political retaliation.

The plaintiffs seek lost wages and benefits, mental anguish and emotional distress, attorney fees, punitive damages, court cost, including expert witness fees and legal interest and all other relief to which they may be entitled in law or in equity.

The suit was filed Aug. 9 in the U.S. District Court, Western Division of Louisiana.