An attorney whose contract as the city of Joplin’s public defender was terminated in 2010 because of a racial comment he made in open court has filed a lawsuit against the city, contending that his business has suffered as a result of public disclosure.
In the suit for unspecified damages, attorney Tom Mann alleges that city officials wrongfully released to the Globe a letter Mann wrote to the City Council.
The Globe sought the letter under the Missouri Open Records Law after having reported that the council had voted during a closed meeting to release Mann from the position. At a later meeting, council members mentioned having received a letter from Mann seeking reconsideration of the termination. Stories were published based on the contents of the letter, which revealed that Mann’s contract was being ended because of a racial comment he made in Joplin Municipal Court. He previously had been reprimanded for inappropriate comments in court, according to his letter.
Mann’s attorney, Bill Fleischaker, said the letter that was released to the Globe should have been kept confidential as part of Mann’s personnel file.
“He wrote the letter to the city defending himself, saying ‘I wasn’t a racist,’ then the city released that letter publicly,” Fleischaker said. “And the effect of it was to let the public know that the city has accused Tom of being racist.
“It was a personnel issue. It was a closed record, and they turned around and opened the record.”
City Attorney Brian Head said he does not think there is merit to the lawsuit. “I frankly don’t see the basis for this lawsuit, and we’re going to defend this vigorously,” he said.
Asked if independent contractors have the same personnel rights as workers who are employed directly by the city, Head said the city’s outside counsel, Karl Blanchard Jr., will handle the lawsuit. He said he did not know whether that will be an issue in the suit.
Blanchard said he did not want to comment on the defense of the case at this time.
In the city’s answer to the lawsuit, Blanchard notes that the letter Mann wrote to the City Council giving details surrounding the disciplinary case was disclosed to the newspaper. But, the disclosure was made pursuant to a request the Globe filed under the Missouri Sunshine Law.
Blanchard’s answer does not directly reference Mann’s status as an independent contractor, but the city’s response denies a contention in Mann’s lawsuit that his employment by the City Council and his communications to the council were “private matters in which the public has no legitimate concern.”
Mann did not return a message left with his secretary for comment.
He was the subject of a closed meeting held by the council Nov. 1, 2010. A vote was taken at the meeting. Mann was notified on Nov. 2 that he essentially had been fired. Three days after the meeting, the city, responding to Globe questions, disclosed as required by Missouri law that there had been a vote at the closed meeting. The vote was 7-2 to end Mann’s independent contractor status as public defender.
Later that month, council members discussed at an informal meeting how to proceed with the hiring of a new public defender.
During that discussion, the council talked about having received a letter from Mann asking that the council reconsider ending his contract. The council voted then not to give him the job back but to let him remain long enough to close out his pending cases.
The Globe filed a request under the Missouri Open Records Law for disclosure of the letter the council had discussed. The city argued against disclosure, but the Globe sought an opinion from Missouri Press Association lawyer Jean Maneke, who said the council’s discussion in a public meeting made the letter a public document. The city then released it to the Globe.
In the letter, Mann said he was “very remorseful for the comments that I made. Those comments were not becoming of an officer of the court.”
Later in the letter, Mann said he hoped to persuade the council to let him keep the job.
“I understand in this day and age that there is no toleration for that kind of statement, whether it was intended to be racial or just as a response to a gentleman’s persistence to get his case heard before other people ahead of him,” Mann wrote. He did not describe the comment further or give any more details as to what transpired in the incident that resulted in the council’s action.
“I apologized to the court personnel that were present that day,” Mann wrote.
Fleischaker, asked why the city should not have disclosed the letter when the incident happened in a public courtroom, said: “It doesn’t make any difference that it happened in public. It wasn’t public that the city was taking action against him. It’s not a question of what he said. It’s a question of what the city was doing about it.”
Fleischaker, asked how much business Mann has lost, said: “We don’t know because we don’t have the numbers. It has declined or has not grown at the rate he feels it should have grown based on those comments” in the newspaper. “It’s a very difficult thing to measure. The damage is done when the letter is disclosed.”
TOM MANN was the city’s public defender for 29 years as an independent contractor.