Hunger First director files $1 million lawsuit against City of Kingsport, police dept. following 2020 arrest

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KINGSPORT, Tenn. (WJHL) — The director of Hunger First has filed a lawsuit for $1 million against the City of Kingsport, the Kingsport Police Department (KPD) and three KPD officers following his arrest in August 2020.

Director Michael Gillis’ complaint claims that “officers slammed him to the pavement face-first and one officer placed his knee on [his] neck in the same manner that notoriously caused the death of George Floyd only months earlier.”

The lawsuit identifies three KPD officers — Joseph Malone, Nickolaus Rambo and Travis Bates — that allegedly played a role in Gillis’ “unlawful seizure and brutal treatment.”

The arrest — which was captured on a video that went viral — followed months of unrest between the city and the homeless shelter as Gillis provided shelter for Kingsport’s growing homeless population during the winter months.

KPD Chief Quillin has told News Channel 11 that KPD had been targeting criminal activity rather than homelessness, citing numerous complaints from area residents.

Gillis’ arrest

Court documents said that on August 20, 2020, Gillis allowed two men to rest at the front of the Hunger First building, one of whom was noted to be an elderly Vietnam veteran.

As the men rested at the front of the facility, Gillis left to serve lunches to homeless people at another location, court documents state.

Upon his return, Gillis allegedly found KPD Officer Malone ordering the men to leave the stoop, citing fire hazards.

Gillis parked behind the police cruiser alongside the curb and asked Malone if there were any problems, to which Malone responded that Gillis “had five seconds to move his car.”

The lawsuit states that Gillis asked Malone if he were threatening him as he returned to his car, and Malone followed, blocking Gillis — who was inside his vehicle again — from closing his car door.

“At this point, Officer Malone had seized Mr. Gillis,” the lawsuit claims.

Malone allegedly then began interrogating Gillis and informed him the situation had become a criminal investigation. The lawsuit says that at this point, other officers, including Malone and Rambo, neared Gillis’ open driver’s door and “reach[ed] into the car and pull[ed] Mr. Gillis out.”

Court documents state Bates pulled up in his police cruiser as Gillis had been removed from his vehicle and, after jumping from his cruiser, ran toward Gillis.

As Malone and Rambo restrained Gillis, Bates “grabbed him by the hair and forced [his] face into the pavement,” the lawsuit states.

Court documents claim that at one point, there were four officers on Gillis, a 50-year-old who stands at 5’5″ and weighs 175lb. It was then, the lawsuit states, that Bates allegedly placed his knee and body weight on Gillis’ neck.

“Mr. Gillis pleaded with the officers that he could not breathe,” the document says.

Following his arrest, Gillis required medical treatment at Indian Path Community Hospital, Holston Medical Group and several visits to a chiropractor.

The lawsuit

Gillis is attempting to sue the City of Kingsport, KPD and three named KPD officers for a violation of his Fourth Amendment Rights, which states, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…”

As a result of the August 20 arrest, Gillis says he continues to suffer from physical injuries caused by the arrest and “excessive force” from KPD officers and is suing to cover medical expenses.

The Kingsport Police Department provided the following statement to News Channel 11 regarding the lawsuit:

“We have been made aware unofficially of the lawsuit in question apparently filed recently by Mr. Gillis. Unfortunately, however, it would be inappropriate for us to publicly discuss the matter at this time due to the pending litigation.”

Kingsport Police Department

A spokesperson from the City of Kingsport told News Channel 11 that the city does not comment on pending litigation.

Gillis’ attorney, Nathaniel Evans, sent News Channel 11 the following statement Tuesday night regarding the lawsuit:

Mr. Gillis, the director of Hunger First, was the subject of a traumatic arrest involving the Kingsport Police Department on August 20, 2020.  The treatment he endured during this arrest was of such a grievous nature that we believe a federal complaint is necessary.  In addition to damages sought, Mr. Gillis seeks significant change in the way in which local officers interact with the community.

After seeing videos of the event, I agree with Mr. Gillis. This was a violation of his civil rights and it should be viewed as such. I believe the allegations in the complaint stand on their own, and I look forward to litigating this through the federal court system on his behalf.

Nathaniel H. Evans
Attorney at Law

Hunger First background

The City of Kingsport first ordered Gillis to shut down Hunger First in January 2020, after discovering the director had allowed homeless people to stay overnight in the facility during the wintertime.

Kingsport spokespeople cited “health and safety concerns” surrounding the non-profit’s order to close, but Hunger First workers feared for the health and safety of those who would no longer be able to avoid the harsh weather.

The shelter has provided food and clothing to those in need since 1996.

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