A local attorney and former State Supreme Court justice has filed two federal lawsuits against Lowndes County after he was twice passed over for the position of public defender.
Chuck Easley, a 69-year-old lawyer who served on the Supreme Court from 2001-08, has alleged he was discriminated against because of his age on two separate occasions — first in late 2014 when now-Assistant District Attorney Collen Hudson was hired as public defender and then a year later when Starkville attorney Brandon Langford was appointed to the post. Both Hudson and Langford were in their mid-20s when hired.
According to the complaints Easley filed with the U.S. District Court in Aberdeen, Easley was “over the age of 40 and was substantially more qualified than any other candidate for the position of Public Defender,” in part because of his time as Supreme Court justice.
“Mr. Easley was obviously much more qualified than either of these two individuals, and each time the county chose to hire a younger person with substantially lesser qualifications for his job,” said Easley’s attorney, Louis Watson of Jackson. “Because of his age, he didn’t get the position and that should not be a determining factor into whether or not somebody gets a job, just like race, sex, religion, national origin.”
In the second lawsuit, in which Easley alleges he was not hired because Langford was younger, Easley also alleges he was subject to retaliation from the county board of supervisors for a complaint he filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in June 2015 against the county for hiring Hudson instead of him.
The EEOC enforces federal laws against racial, religious, sex and other types of discrimination in employment. It investigates complaints and has the power to file lawsuits against companies on behalf of individuals.
Easley filed a complaint with EEOC each time he was passed over for hire. In both complaints, EEOC could not conclude whether any age discrimination had occurred, according to court documents filed with Easley’s lawsuit, but both gave Easley the right to sue.
Watson added Easley has filed a third complaint against the county with EEOC, although he didn’t give details on that complaint.
“The county’s looking at potentially three lawsuits,” he said.
In both lawsuits already filed, Easley is seeking back pay, benefits and other damages.
The position pays $45,000 per year, said Watson, adding that would compound over three years, making roughly $135,000 “plus retirement and other benefits like health insurance.”
Lowndes County Board of Supervisors President Harry Sanders said Easley has sued the wrong people because circuit court judges actually appoint public defenders.
“All we do is sign off on what the judge said,” Sanders said. “So first off, he’s filing a lawsuit in the wrong place against the wrong people. If he wants to file a lawsuit, he needs to file it against the judges who recommended somebody else.”
He said Easley’s name never even came before the board.
“How in the world can there be retaliation by the board of supervisors when the board of supervisors doesn’t have anything to do with it?” Sanders said.
Board attorney Tim Hudson, who is Collen Hudson’s father, agreed.
“The circuit judge issues an order appointing whoever he decides he wants to appoint,” he said. “He sends that order to the county and we spread it on the minutes and they go on the payroll. But the county has absolutely zero to do with selecting them. We can’t hire them, we can’t fire them, we can’t discipline them. We don’t do anything other than do what the circuit judge orders us to do.”
Tim Hudson’s office provided a copy of such an order signed by circuit judges appointing Collen Hudson, Langford and three other attorneys as public defenders in December 2015, the time Easley alleges Langford was hired instead of him.
According to Easley’s complaint, circuit court judges “recommend” public defenders, and specifically notes senior Circuit Court Judge Lee Howard. Howard did not return calls from The Dispatch by press time.
Watson said the county was sued because the county is technically the employer.
“Under the law, you can only sue the actual employer,” Watson said.
All three circuit court judges with jurisdiction in Lowndes County — Howard, Lee Coleman and Jim Kitchens — are over the age of 40, as are all five members of the board of supervisors.
Watson said he doesn’t know why men about Easley’s age would have discriminated against Easley because of his age, but he said it’s possible for them to do so.
“Courts have held that, say, a male can discriminate against a male because of their sex,” Watson said. “So just because somebody’s older doesn’t mean they can’t discriminate against a 65-year-old.”
But Sanders said Easley’s lawsuit against the county is frivolous and that it’s not the first one Easley has filed.
“He does this all the time,” Sanders said. “He doesn’t have anything else to do. And he’s got a vendetta against the county because he used to be a Supreme Court justice, and after 10 years he ran for re-election (and) got the hell beat out of him. He came to the board of supervisors, wanted to claim that he could draw his retirement because he had worked for the county.”
But he never worked for the county, so the board didn’t pay his retirement.
“He’s still sore about that,” Sanders said.
“This is just a harassment case and somebody ought to sue his ass,” he later added.
Collen Hudson, who began working for the District Attorney’s Office at the beginning of this year, said she has not seen the lawsuit and did not comment other than to say she had been practicing law for five years when she was hired for the position and that she believes she was qualified for the position.
Langford did not return a call from The Dispatch by press time.
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