LOUISA, Ky. — Attorney William Wilhoit of Grayson, Ky. announced today a “settlement” between Billy and Amanda Lemaster and insurance companies representing Lawrence Judge/Executive Phillip L. Carter. Carter was named in a civil action by the Lemasters that led to the 6th federal court of Appeals, or as far as it could go.
The release today means Carter’s attorney did not think it was worth the expense and work to go further in the case. In Lawrence County it means Carter cost the county $100,000 for his politically motivated, “retaliatory” action against the Lemasters.
The Lemasters proved that Carter removed their towing company from the county list because of a Facebook post by Billy Lemaster that he (Carter) did not like. A member of the 911 crew that calls towing companies testified that Carter told her to take the Lemasters off the list shortly after the FB comment was made.
The court ruled this was a violation of the Lemasters’ Constitutional right of free speech.
The county’s insurance company, which was not identified in the latest action, decided to pay Lemaster $100,000 cash for the settlement from which will come taxes and attorney fees and court costs, the document said.
Below is the latest settlement in the case…
ORIGINAL STORY CONCERNING APPEALS COURT DECISION
“…The United States Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit reinstated Billy & Amanda Lemasters’ civil rights claims against Judge Executive Carter alleging he removed Lemaster Towing from towing rotation in violation of their civil rights. On appeal, the Court found there was sufficient evidence that Judge Carter removed Lemaster Towing from the rotation list in retaliation for Lemaster exercising constitutional free speech for the case to proceed. The Appellate Court affirmed dismissal of claims against Lawrence County holding the County could not be liable for Judge Carter’s conduct because there was no county policy that authorized Judge Carter’s removal of Lemaster Towing from rotation.
“This element thus turns on whether the Lemasters introduced enough evidence that Carter effectively, if not formally, removed their business from the E-911 Center’s rotation list. They did so. Among other evidence, an employee at the E-911 Center sent an all-caps email to dispatchers stating that, “per Judge Carter,” “Lemaster Towing is no longer on the rotation list.” Email, R.19-5, PageID 96. And the calls that Lemaster Towing received from the center “dropped off tremendously” from then on. Lemaster Dep., R.41-1, PageID 256.*4 Carter objects that he never removed Lemaster Towing from the rotation list and that the employee who sent this email “misunderstood” his directions. Carter Dep., R.42-1, PageID 443–44. Carter allegedly intended for the email to convey only that the dispatchers should call another fire department if the Cherryville Fire Department did not respond. He did not mean for the email to remove the Lemasters’ business from the rotation list. Yet a rational jury could disbelieve this “misunderstanding” defense.”
Barbara Howard, a dispatcher, testified that Carter “personally” told her not to call the Lemasters. Howard Dep., R.43-1, PageID 588–90. She gave a concrete example from May 2020. After working her way through the rotation list without finding a tow, she announced over the radio that she did not have a tow company available. Hearing this statement, an incredulous Lemaster called Howard asking why she had not tried to call him. Howard responded: “Sir you’re gonna have to talk to the judge about that.” Tr., R.41-12, PageID 346. Howard’s supervisor likewise recalled hearing from dispatchers that Carter had “told” them not to call Lemaster Towing. Ellis Dep., R.57, PageID 793.
The Lemasters have unearthed this evidence. To begin with, they have shown that Carter was upset by Lemaster’s speech. On the day after Lemaster criticized Lawrence County for firing its EMA director, Carter called Lemaster up “cursing [him]” about this criticism and generally “being disrespectful[.]” Lemaster Dep., R.41-1, PageID 246. Far from “affirm[ing]” Lemaster’s right to criticize the government, Sensabaugh, 937 F.3d at 630, Carter all but asked Lemaster to stay quiet because his criticism made Carter “look bad,” Tr., R.41-2, PageID 301.And while Carter appeared to fix the problems with the rotation list after Lemaster agreed to delete his post, the Lemasters offered evidence that Carter engaged in a “pattern of retaliatory mistreatment” from then on. Benison, 765 F.3d at 662. For one thing, a reasonable jury could find that Carter falsely accused the Lemasters of misconduct, forcing them to sit through a pointless audit over lawful expenses on a fire department truck. According to Lemaster, the state fire commission did not uncover any problematic activity.
For another thing, a reasonable jury also could find that Carter convinced McKenzie to spread gossip about the Lemasters to try to force them out of the fire department. At Carter’s doing, McKenzie falsely said that the Lemasters had been stealing from the fire department and that Lemaster had been charged with crimes. Even if this conduct does not itself qualify as an “adverse” action under the First Amendment, it bolsters the Lemasters’ claim that the April criticisms of Carter had turned him against them. Benison, 765 F.3d at 661–62; see Eckerman v. Tenn. Dep’t of Safety, 636 F.3d 202, 208–09 (6th Cir. 2010).
The way that Carter removed Lemaster Towing from the rotation list also could lead a jury to find that he did so for an improper reason. According to the director of the E-911 Center, a county board must decide whether to add or remove a tow company from the rotation list. Ellis Dep., R.57, PageID 794. But Carter did not ask the board to remove Lemaster Towing. Id., PageID 794, 796. Nor did he publicly announce that he had done so himself. Instead, he instructed the E-911 Center to send an internal email stating—without explanation—that the County had removed Lemaster Towing from the list. Email, R.19-5, PageID 96. And Carter did not correct this notice even after it became public and Lemaster confronted him about it. Most telling, Carter continued to privately tell dispatchers like Barbara Howard that they should not call Lemaster Towing—again, without explanation—even after the E-911 Center director contradicted him and instructed dispatchers to “call [Lemaster].” Howard Dep., R.43-1, PageID 589–92. As Howard noted, the director “would say, call him; the judge would say don’t.” Id., PageID 591–92. Howard added that Carter was “upset” with Lemaster but did not give a “reason” why. Id., PageID 589, 592.
*8 Even during this litigation, moreover, Carter has not offered evidence of a valid reason why he would have told dispatchers to avoid Lemaster Towing. He has instead doubled down on his claim that he did not do so. Carter Dep., R.42-1, PageID 443–44; Appellees’ Br. 5–6. But a fact dispute exists on that question. And his failure to introduce evidence of a neutral reason for his removal of Lemaster Towing provides further proof that he harbored an improper motive. Indeed, under the well-known test for resolving Title VII claims, employers must articulate a “legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason” precisely because the absence of such a reason often permits an inference of invidious discrimination