Lyndsey Cooper has probably lost her job, her attorney Edward Smith said last week, but not because of any negligence, insubordination or dereliction of duty. Instead, he believes the former magistrate for the city of Spanish Fort was retaliated against after she filed a harassment charge against Mayor Mike McMillan last October.
Cooper worked for the city for nearly 10 years and was just four months from being vested in the state pension plan when she was fired June 1. Officially, she was told it was for refusing to take the temperatures of everyone entering City Hall to screen for potential exposure to COVID-19, but at an appeal hearing last week, Smith introduced a document dated the day after the harassment charge was filed indicating Cooper was targeted nearly eight months ago.
“After [Cooper] accused the mayor of slapping her — with an internal complaint in early October — she waited three weeks for [the city] to do something and they did nothing. They just circled their wagons, bringing her in for an accusatory line of questions. They asked nothing about her allegations, it was just to protect the mayor. At that point she decided she would file criminal charges,” Smith said. “A couple months later, their receptionist quit so they wanted to put [Cooper] at the front desk, to use her as not only magistrate but also in reception.”
Much of Cooper’s work as magistrate includes handling confidential information, so she wanted to seek advice from the Alabama Administrative Office of the Courts as to whether it was feasible at a desk that was accessible to the public, Smith said, but Cooper’s supervisor, City Clerk Mary Lynn Williams, told her not to.
“So here comes COVID-19,” he continued. “And who do they assign to test everybody who walks in? My client. She has a young family and is freaked out. The back-up receptionists — one is pregnant and the other has underlying conditions and most of the time when [Cooper] was out to lunch, they didn’t say someone else had to do it.”
So Cooper resisted, citing a lack of training, but also questioning whether the city would provide the proper personal protective equipment (PPE). At the appeal hearing last week, Williams testified Cooper’s refusal to administer the tests and perform magistrate work at the front desk constituted insubordination. Due to a conflict of interest with McMillan’s pending harassment charge, City Councilwoman Mary Brabner was the official who fired Cooper and who presided over the appeal.
“At the hearing [last week], Williams couldn’t really say what the issues were and acknowledged whatever they were, they didn’t rise to the level of discipline,” Smith said. “Plus, a number of coworkers testified [Cooper] went above and beyond, was always accessible and was a good and dedicated employee.”
The media was barred from the appeal hearing, but Smith said the city didn’t follow its own appeal rules.
“The rules say who can be in there … the mayor, the city attorney, the clerk, witnesses, the client and the client’s attorney,” he said. “But when we got there they had another attorney present and both lawyers were passing Brabner questions and Brabner was asking her own questions.”
Further, because Brabner represented the city in Cooper’s firing, Smith believes she’s biased as an arbiter in the appeal hearing. If she upholds her own ruling after the hearing, it can be appealed to the full City Council, of which she is a member.
“I expect Brabner to fire her again and the City Council to sit on it and do nothing,” Smith said. “But they may rule on it and Brabner is a city councilor, so is she going to sit in on it? Is she getting a third vote? It’s validity for her decision when no one is vouching for my client.”
The city of Spanish Fort said it does not comment on personnel matters. McMillan’s harassment case is pending, with state prosecutors currently seeking evidence from city attorney David Conner. But Conner has argued his communication with the mayor and other city officials during the investigation of the allegation is protected by attorney-client privilege.
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