Metro Nashville is set to settle the claim of Metro Police Officer Monica Blake for $150,000.00 at next Tuesday night’s Metro Council meeting. The city says the suit poses “significant risk” for the city, and “while this claim is in its procedural infancy, the Metro Legal Department estimates fees in excess of $250,000.00 would eventually be incurred in the required investigation and trial.”
Officer Monica Blake frequently made posts on social media that criticized MNPD, aired personal grievances about her MNPD employment, and expressed support for a Community Oversight Board. The department claims she never included a disclaimer that the views expressed were her own views, and not that of the department, a technical standard set within the MNPD Departmental manual, but one which is rarely followed.
In January of 2019, a disciplinary hearing was held, and MNPD imposed an 18-day suspension was imposed on Officer Blake, sustaining four violations of the MNPD Manual. Violations 1 and 2 related to Blake’s failure to appear in uniform and without her firearm for a departmental meeting, and each received a one-day suspension, however violations 3 and 4 related to her social media posts. A five-day suspension was imposed for failure to include a disclaimer on her social media posts, and an eleven-day suspension was imposed for ‘conduct unbecoming’, as the posts accused MNPD employees of oppression, misconduct, mistreatment, injustice, and vindictiveness. This disciplinary action and 18-day suspension is the foundation for Blake’s retaliation claim.
Officer Blake filed suit alleging First Amendment retaliation and prior restraint claims under 42 U.S.C. 1983; sexual and racial harassment under the Tennessee Human Rights Act; sexual and racial discrimination under the THRA; retaliation under THRA; racial harassment, retaliation, and discrimination under 42 U.S.C. 1981; retaliation under Title IX; and a claim under Tennessee’s Public Employee Political Freedom Act. Ms. Blake’s alleged damages consist of back pay for the 18 day suspension, emotional distress, and attorneys’ fees.
Mike Jameson, Director and Special Counsel for Metro Council, says “Public employers are limited in restricting the free speech liberties their employees enjoy as private citizens. A public employee’s right to speak is not without limits, but speech is generally protected when the employee speaks as a private citizen about matters of public concern, and the employee’s interest in the speech outweighs the employer’s interest in the efficiency of the public services it provides. Here, Ms. Blake’s social media posts expressed personal employment concerns and grievances, but also included statements about the Community Oversight Board — a matter of public concern. Generally, if an employee engages in protected activity (speech) and adverse employment action is taken by his or her employer motivated by that activity, the employer can be found guilty of retaliation.”
Metro’s Department of Law recommends settlement of the claim for $150,000, stating “Resolving this matter at this early stage will avoid a possible jury verdict well before significant attorneys’ fees have accrued. Because Ms. Blake will resign as a condition of settlement, it resolves the underlying employment concerns and secures dismissal of the claims against the individual MNPD employee. Significant risk is thereby eliminated for all parties.”
No disciplinary action has been taken against the MNPD employees involved.
Metro Council Resolution RS2019-1676, sponsored by CM Vercher, is on the agenda for Tuesday night’s meeting, to approve this settlement, which includes the resignation of Officer Blake from the department. Blake began working for MNPD in 2005 and became a School Resource Officer in 2011. The $150,000 settlement would be the fourth payment from the Judgments and Losses Fund in FY19 for a cumulative total of $555,000. The fund balance would be $2,809,081 after this payment.