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Federal jury: Jackson must pay $600,000 for violating developer’s free speech rights

lawsuit11A federal court jury late Thursday afternoon delivered a $600,000 judgment against the City of Jackson on a claim the Jackson Redevelopment Authority violated the First Amendment free speech rights of a principal of a local development company that sought JRA bond money to buy downtown’s Deposit Guaranty building for a residential conversion.

In ruling for Jackson-based Advanced Technology Building Solutions and principal Don Hewitt, the jury concluded that the company lost JRA funding after Hewitt publicly criticized the JRA’s 2011 bidding process for a convention center hotel. Hewitt had also questioned the fees proposed to be paid to political affiliates and consultants close to then-Mayor Harvey Johnson.

He made his criticisms at public sessions of the JRA board and in interviews published by the Mississippi Business Journal.

The JRA claimed that it had merely decided to postpone funding the Deposit Guaranty purchase after Johnson voiced concern about the City’s ability to loan funds for acquisition of properties.

» READ MORE:  Developer who won suit wants cooperation — not resistance — from Jackson and the JRA

Hewitt said the delay of over three years caused his firm to lose the option on the building.

The verdict came from a jury of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi Northern Division. Circuit District Judge Louis Guirola Jr. presided.

Advanced Technology Building Solutions sought JRA bond financing to acquire the Deposit Guaranty Building (now the Regions Building) on Capitol Street for conversion to apartments.

In addition to the City, the suit named the Jackson Redevelopment Authority and several members of its board as well as Johnson.

In addition to the a First Amendment retaliation claim, the claims by Hewitt originally included: a Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process claim, a Fourteenth Amendment equal protection claim based on political affiliation, a Fourteenth Amendment equal protection claim based on race, and a conspiracy claim pursuant.

The Advanced Technology Building Solutions principal also asserted state law tort claims for gross negligence and tortious breach of contract against the JRA, and a tortious interference with contract claim against the City.

Judge Guirola, in ruling on the validity of the claims on July 30, threw out all but the one addressing free speech and retaliation.

Hewitt sought a $5 million loan for purchase of the Deposit Guaranty building at 200 E. Capitol St. After his firm lost the JRA funding, Hewitt said in an interview with the Mississippi Business Journal he suspected retaliation for his negative comments as the cause, but said he could not put his finger on exactly why the funding loss occurred just as he was securing the money and initiating the project.

In letting the jury hear the free speech claim, the court ruled that statements “related to the bidding process for a $90 million government project easily [satisfy]” the public concern requirement.”

Further, the delays of over three years by the JRA at Johnson’s urging constituted “an adverse employment action,” the court said.

The court noted Hewitt produced evidence and testimony indicating that the position of the JRA and the City on the Deposit Guaranty project may have changed within one to two months after Hewitt criticized the City’s handling of the convention center hotel proposals. “As a result, a genuine issue of material fact exists regarding whether a causal connection exists between Hewitt’s speech and the adverse action.

“Furthermore, the defendants have not demonstrated that they would have made the same decision in the absence of Hewitt’s speech. The defendants claim in argument that they did not know about Hewitt’s criticisms, but they have not produced any affidavits or deposition testimony supporting this argument.”

The jury agreed, finding the City committed “an adverse action” by delaying the funding. Jurors concluded the City would not have delayed funding “but for the plaintiff’s’ speech.”

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