A former county administrator has filed a federal lawsuit against Lowndes County and two supervisors, alleging they forced him out of his position due to his age.
Ralph Billingsley, 66, is asking for a jury trial to determine damages for age discrimination, defamation and “malicious interference with employment.” The suit specifically names District 1 Supervisor Harry Sanders and District 3 Supervisor John Holliman as defendants in the case.
Billingsley served as county administrator from 2008 until his retirement last year, when his final months were fraught with allegations that board members were trying to oust him from his position.
Tupelo attorney Jim Waide filed the suit on Billingsley’s behalf in the Northern District of Mississippi court in Aberdeen on Wednesday.
In the suit, Billingsley alleges Sanders spent several months in early 2020 trying to force out Billingsley and replace him with current county administrator Jay Fisher, who is 14 years Billingsley’s junior. The ousting began, the complaint says, when Sanders and District
2 Supervisor Trip Hairston — who is now board president — visited Billingsley’s office on March 20, 2020, and that Sanders “directed (Billingsley) to resign immediately, or otherwise he would call a special meeting of the board the following Wednesday and terminate him at that time.” In that meeting, Sanders claimed the reason for termination was because Billingsley had “disrespected” Holliman, the complaint claims.
The complaint goes on to say Hairston called Billingsley later that day to apologize and say Billingsley was “the best county administrator Lowndes County ever had” and that he knew Billingsley planned to retire in the next couple of years. The complaint says Hairston asked him to submit a letter stating he would retire Sept. 30, 2020, thus allowing the board to hire Fisher who “would be able to serve the County for another (15) years.” Sanders later called and said he would not attempt to fire Billingsley if Billingsley submitted the letter, the complaint says.
Billingsley claims in the suit he wanted to work two more years, but agreed to the Sept. 30 retirement date because Sanders controlled a majority of the board.
Billingsley says he does not know how he could have “disrespected” Holliman, and that the
only incidents he knows of that may have given Holliman a reason to resent him were when Billingsley transferred a county employee who is friends with Holliman’s wife to a different department to avoid inter-office conflict, and when Holliman asked him to purchase $41,000 worth of radios — which had not been budgeted — for volunteer firefighters. The complaint says in the latter case, Billingsley told Holliman one supervisor could not legally order the county to purchase the radios and advised him to bring it before the board at the supervisors’ next meeting.
The complaint goes on to say Sanders told media that Billingsley was “underperforming” in his job due to his divorce and had cost the county “a million dollars.” It also references a board meeting during which Sanders moved to fire Billingsley during an executive session on May 4, 2020. The motion led to an argument between Sanders and District 5 Supervisor Leroy Brooks, The Dispatch previously reported, and the board ultimately agreed to keep Billingsley in his position.
Board Attorney Tim Hudson said he knows of the lawsuit but has not received summons in the case. He added the case will likely be handled through the county’s insurance company.
Neither Hairston nor Holliman responded to messages from The Dispatch by press time asking for comment, but Sanders said he wasn’t concerned about the suit.
“That’s old news,” he said, referencing a complaint Billingsley filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is required for anyone to sue an employer for discrimination.
“From what I understand, … it’s baseless,” he added. “It’s just a harassment-type thing. I’m not going to worry about it.”