Lawsuit Claims 911 Director Kept Fear Of COVID-19 “Spreading Through Dispatch” Secret

Apr 6, 2020

Credit Marilyn Linsey Shrewsbury, attorney representing Hanson / Nelson, McDonald & Shrewsbury

A former E-911 dispatcher has filed a lawsuit against Marshall County Fiscal Court and Marshall County Judge-Executive Kevin Neal alleging county officials knew as early March 19 that its dispatchers were potentially exposed to COVID-19 but took no action until March 24.

And while Marshall County E-911 Director Chris Freeman was reportedly taking precautions to protect himself, including working out of an entirely separate building, the lawsuit claims he intentionally kept his employees in the dark and then illegally terminated Maranda Hanson for expressing concern. 

One piece of evidence submitted with the lawsuit is a message sent by Jason Accord to Hanson on April 2. The lawsuit states Accord is a firefighter EMT and radio dispatch officer employed by Marshall County who was called to a meeting with Freeman on March 19 to discuss radio equipment. But instead of meeting at Freeman’s office in the dispatch center, which is attached to the Marshall County Sheriff’s Office, Accord said Freeman asked Accord and another dispatch officer to meet him at the county courthouse. 

 

The message reads in part: “[Freeman] had us meet him at the old courthouse saying he had a meeting there… After we got there though, he told us he was concerned about this virus and it spreading through dispatch so he was working [at the courthouse] during the day to limit his exposure in case staff levels go low. It now appears that he was protecting himself and leaving you guys with no information.”

 

The lawsuit contends, Freeman knew as early as March 19 the dispatch office could have been exposed to COVID-19 but kept that information to himself, taking action to protect his own health and well being while knowingly placing his employees at risk.

 

On March 21, Hanson sent the email to Freeman related to her concerns about the lack of policies and procedures governing the health, safety and welfare of the entire department, which later resulted in her termination. The lawsuit states Hanson was “shocked and horrified” when she walked into work on March 22 and saw the coworker specifically referenced in the email she sent to Freeman. That coworker had a family member who tested positive for COVID-19.

 

“In fact, this coworker stated that his doctor had told him to self-quarantine for 10 days. However, the coworker believed that because he had no symptoms, he was fine to work,” the lawsuit states.

 

March 23 is when Freeman confronted Hanson about the email she sent two days prior and told her she was being suspended for three days without pay for insubordination. The lawsuit states Hanson put in her two weeks notice at that time and when asked if she intended to work it or if she “was just done,” she said she would work her two weeks--and was placed on the schedule for the week after her suspension ended.

 

But Hanson had a tough decision to make, her attorney contends: if she returned to work, she could be terminated for not following the guidelines set out by the governor, World Health Organization (WHO) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) relating to individuals who believe they could have been exposed to COVID-19; if she followed the guidelines, she could be terminated for not showing up to work, or job abandonment.

 

So Hanson retained legal counsel, Marilyn “Linsey” Shrewsbury, who sent a letter on her behalf withdrawing her resignation and informing her superiors she would follow all relevant guidelines and orders related to potential exposure--self-quarantine for 14 days. In response to that letter, Hanson was immediately terminated, and her termination was predated to reflect the same day as her suspension became effective, March 23. 

 

“Her termination was clearly retaliation for asserting her rights under Kentucky law, to not be subjected to illegal and retaliatory acts for bringing legitimate concerns relating to the health, safety, and welfare of the workplace, and ultimately obtaining counsel to represent her interest in the same,” Shrewsbury asserts in the lawsuit.

 

Shrewsbury further asserts the treatment Hanson received was “intentional, malicious and oppressive.”

 

On March 24, Freeman sent an email to the dispatchers establishing new procedures for “employee safety.” The new protocols include entering only through “the back door” and taking their temperature before entering the radio room--if running higher than 99.9 they should spray down anything they touched with Lysol before leaving immediately and calling a supervisor to get the shift covered. The dispatchers were also advised to use the window beside the lockers to provide information needed by officers, email or fax anything when possible to limit contact and only leave the radio room in case of an emergency. No more visitors including friends and family. They were instructed to wash their hands regularly and disinfect the consoles between shifts.

 

The lawsuit demands a jury trial for all issues triable by a jury and requests a declaration acknowledging the county’s conduct illegal, award Hanson compensatory damages and punitive damages in an amount determined at trial, and award Hanson costs, interests and attorney’s fees. 

 

The Marshall County Fiscal Court Facebook page shared a comment on behalf of Freeman last week in which he contends none of his employees have tested positive for COVID-19. He also contends his department has followed all recommendations made by the local health department

 

Marshall County Health Department Public Services Manager Jennifer Brown said she’s bound by law from releasing any identifying information but she was able to confirm Freeman contacted her prior to March 23 about an employee. She said the health department provided guidelines based on those set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and to the best of the health department’s knowledge, those guidelines were followed. 

 

The email Hanson sent to Freeman references two dispatchers, Brown said the health department has only been made aware of one.