JOHNSON CITY, TN (WJHL) – An internal investigation into Johnson City’s fire chief did not substantiate workplace harassment, but a longtime, respected firefighter says some of the chief’s actions have contributed to his mental health struggle.
Sgt. Mike Sagers provided us with an April 11, 2016 note from a psychiatrist that says he has remained under the care of a doctor for stress, anxiety and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“His symptoms have become excessive and it would be in his best interest to take a medical leave of absence,” the signed note said.Read note: 2016 Letter of verification for treatment of stress, anxiety and PTSD (.pdf)
Sgt. Sagers says years of bullying, belittling and workplace violence by longtime administrator and current Fire Chief Mark Scott have taken their toll on him. Instead of returning from stressful fire scenes to a supportive fire hall that helped him decompress, Sagers says the environment Scott’s sustained and exacerbated has added to his stress.
Psychotherapy progress notes provided to us by Sgt. Sagers mention words like “abusive fire chief,” “harassment” and “concern of retaliation.” At one point, the notes reference the chief throwing things and comments by Sgt. Sagers to his doctor that he was feeling tired, worn out and exhausted.
The notes also mention something several other firefighters warned an internal investigator about in 2015; fear that Chief Scott might shoot someone. In Sagers’ case, his medical notes list that the sergeant was afraid the chief might shoot him.See previous story: Internal investigation finds Johnson City fire chief possibly abused subordinate, no harassment
Sagers has worked for Johnson City for more than 25 years. A review of his personnel file reveals over the years, his supervisors have praised his “amazing” worth ethic, called him one of the very best drivers and one of the best when it comes to interacting with the public. They’ve called him an excellent firefighter, dependable, a true asset and a man who’s a pleasure to supervise.
What they didn’t know about the lifelong firefighter is that for years, while he fought hundreds of fires, mentally he battled another one. Sgt. Sagers calls it “the fire within.”
His fellow firefighters say they didn’t find out about his struggle until earlier this year after the sergeant took extended medical leave.
“We had no idea,” Johnson City Professional Firefighters Association President Charlie Ihle said. “It’s very sad for someone that’s been here and put that much time and effort.”
“When you found out this year how serious of an issue it was, what was your reaction?” we asked.
“I was upset for Mike Sagers,” Ihle said. “I was upset for the fire service as a whole. How could we let it get to that point? How could the administration and the city administration let it get to that point?”
At his attorney’s request, Sgt. Sagers declined an on-camera interview for this story, but he gave the fire association his blessing to speak on his behalf and gave us access to some of his medical records.
Sgt. Sagers told us the fire department forced him to disclose his confidential mental impairment to supervisors after an administrative change in sick time policy, which required a doctor’s note and co-pay for every absence. He says he challenged the change by filing a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last year. In his EEOC filing he mentioned an informal grievance he filed in 2014, which raised concerns about the sick time policy.
“I now believe that retaliation by my employer may be occurring due to this complaint,” he wrote in March 2015. “My health care provider issued FMLA leave from January 17, 2015 to February 15, 2015 due to stressful events occuring after the complaint. My FMLA document revealed to my employer my mental impairment that has been kept confidential until that point. Discrimination against this disability was the original reason for the grievance. I have been a qualified employee for more than six years without their knowledge of this impairment. I have excellent evaluations for more than 25 years in the fire service.”
He ended his letter asking the EEOC to help “improve the workplace environment for the men and women of the Johnson City Fire Department.”Read note: Clinical psychologist’s letter to EEOC reports stress at work, concerns related to fire chief (.pdf)
According to a March 22, 2016 letter from the EEOC, the agency closed and dismissed his case and gave him notice of his right to sue the city.
Back in 2015, when the city investigated an unfounded harassment claim against Scott, the chief brushed off any concerns about threats or workplace violence. In a recorded interview with an internal investigator he said any comments of him shooting people were never meant to be taken seriously.
(Note: The question in this recording is asked in the context of after 2011 or since Scott’s been chief of the fire department.)
“If I said it, I was kidding about it,” he said in the recording.
City Manager Pete Peterson later compared the comments to fire hall jokes, stemming from a locker room environment; an environment that for years remained common at the fire hall over the course of many chiefs. In an interview with us earlier this year, Peterson pledged to put an end to that behavior.
“Society has changed. What once was acceptable behavior is no longer acceptable behavior,” Peterson said. “Everyone in the fire hall really needs to be careful about how they act and what they say because we will not tolerate a hostile work environment.”
Sgt. Sagers told us he hopes his story spares others the damage he’s experienced. Since the city named Scott fire chief in September 2011, Sagers says a note from his clinical psychologist to the EEOC revealed he’s had 24 treatment sessions.Read letter: 2014 letter of verification from therapist (.pdf)
“The sessions increasingly focused on stress at work related to the departmental administration,” the doctor’s note said. “Almost all of the sessions since 2014 have at least partially related to…inappropriate administrative actions, etc.”
Sagers says the stress became too much in April of this year when his doctor requested extended medical leave.
Ihle says firefighters have noticed a change.
“Over the years he’s been cheerful, happy, looks forward to coming to work,” Ihle said. “He’s just not the Mike Sagers that everybody knows. He just doesn’t seem as energetic about the fire department and the fire service and he just kind of seems down about it.”
Ihle hopes the city takes notice, because he sees a man who’s spent more than 25 years laying his life on the line to save the lives of others, all while he is slowly and painfully losing his own life in the process.
“I don’t think they’re taking it as seriously as they should be,” Ihle said. “Mike Sagers was very passionate about this job. He loved coming to the fire hall. You could tell every day he was happy to be here. To take that away from somebody is not right.”
Earl Booze, the attorney representing the city in this matter, declined to comment on the situation. In an email to us, he cited privacy concerns as the reason why.
“The City of Johnson City is always keenly aware of every employee’s right to privacy, especially when it comes to their medical records, so the City will not comment on Sgt. Sagers’ medical records,” Booze said. “Due to the nature of information contained in personal medical records, HIPAA regulations prohibit the dissemination or discussion of an employee’s medical records. In fact, I do not think that Sgt. Sagers would want the City to make any public comments about his private medical records.”
According to Mayor Clayton Stout, the city’s attorney has asked Johnson City officials to now limit their conversations about the ongoing fire department and management issues. Because of that, Mayor Stout said he’s not at liberty to discuss this situation or any others at this time.
We’ve also made repeated efforts to try to talk to the chief about this situation and the ongoing issues at the fire department.See related topics below: