Finance director loses lawsuit
By Kevin Hogencamp
Defeating one of his former department heads in court, Alfred Lott has prevailed in the most damning civil action filed against him during his troubled tenure as Albany’s city manager.
On Friday, Dougherty Superior Court Judge Denise Marshall ruled against fired finance director Shirley Smith, who sought damages for her firing and for Lott interfering in her subsequent efforts to land a job in Orlando, Fla. Smith’s attorney, Christopher G. Moorman of Atlanta, said Tuesday that had not yet been informed of Marshall’s order, and would withhold comment until discussing the matter with Smith. Marshall’s ruling may be appealed.
Smith says that not only did Lott slander her, he committed perjury during a court deposition for a civil lawsuit she filed. Marshall did not address the perjury allegation, nor did she initiate a criminal investigation. The City of Albany, meanwhile, is battling a handful of federal discrimination complaints filed during Lott’s five-year tenure, which ended earlier this year.
In case largely centered around allegations of malice, Smith alleged state law causes of action against Lott for defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, tortuous interference with employment opportunities, punitive damages and attorney’s fees. In ruling in Lott’s favor, Marshall cited a precedent-setting court case in which a judge noted that “a false accusation of dishonesty or lack of integrity in connection with one’s employment is undoubtedly stressful, … but it is a common vicissitude of ordinary life … (and) such conduct is not … the intentional infliction of emotional stress.
In her ruling, Marshall noted that as city manager, Lott was entitled to fire employees without cause and to say what he wants to about former employees, as long as his statements were not “false or a reckless regard as to its truth.” Even if Lott were guilty of violating state laws as alleged by Smith, it’s likely he would been immune from paying damages because of certain protections afforded to government employees, Marshall said in her ruling.
Smith’s complaint was dormant for about two years as attorneys for both sides waited for Marshall to move forward with the case. Then, in March, a hearing was held on Lott’s request for a summary judgment. Lott was represented at taxpayer expense by Albany attorney Donald A. Sweat.
Like fired Civic Center Director Mattie Goddard before her and former Human Resources Director Mary LaMont since, Smith says that Lott used lies and coercion to force her from her job. Smith’s longstanding suit against Lott and the City, which is being defended with attorneys funded by Albany taxpayers, remains in the hands of Superior Court Judge Denise Marshall.
In her suit, Smith alleged that Lott’s critical and false statements about her to the news media and to a prospective employer – the Orlando official – were slanderous and damaging to Smith’s reputation and career. Elwell said in a deposition that Lott told Elwell that “there was more cause for Ms. Smith’s termination than any other termination he’s done in 30 years.” In a separate deposition, Lott said Elwell’s claim was untrue.
Lott, who was forced from his job by the City Commission last summer and now works for the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C., fired Smith in 2006, months after lauding Smith’s performance and rewarding her with a bonus and city car, after City Commissioner Tommie Postell caught Lott in a cover-up of a business trip Smith made to Canada.
Lott, who falsely claimed that he did not know about Smith’s trip, suspended Smith and then paid a consultant $15,000 – $2,500 a day – of taxpayers’ money for the investigation and scathing report that resulted in Smith’s firing.
The consultant, Gloria Wright of Lawrenceville, Ga., reported that Smith’s employees claimed that – in addition to managing by fear and intimidation — Smith fleeced taxpayers by having employees perform personal work for her while on the job, and changed appraisal scores to benefit some employees and victimize others.
However, while Lott says that Wright was hired to examine the Finance Department’s leadership culture, public records show that Wright was hired to build a termination case against Smith. In a Sept. 7, 2006 letter to Smith, Lott offered Ms. Smith three months’ severance pay in return Lott not publicly disclosing Wright’s report of “egregious managerial malfeasance in the Finance Department,” records show.
Meanwhile, in public records filed in Dougherty Superior Court, Smith says her perjury claims are substantiated under oath by an Orlando city official who likely would have been her boss if Lott hadn’t have slandered her. The claim is at least the third recent perjury allegation against Albany city officials; City Attorney Nathan Davis and Assistant City Attorney Jenise Smith also are accused by former city officials of committing a crime by lying under the oath. Criminal charges have not been filed in any of the cases; perjury is a felony.