New details on Town of Unicoi harassment and retaliation settlement brought forward ahead of mayoral election

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Editors note: a previous version of this story reported a volunteer involved with a complaint made to the Town of Unicoi had a business connection with Mayor Johnny Lynch. The mayor denies this.

UNICOI, Tenn. (WJHL)- For the first time, a former Town of Unicoi employee is speaking out on a settlement she reached with the town in 2018. The settlement came after the Tennessee Human Rights Commission found cause to believe she experienced sexual harassment and retaliation. Documents obtained by News Channel 11 reveal the settlement cost the town over $47,500.

News Channel 11 first reported in 2018 the Tennessee Human Rights Commission ruled the town may have violated state statutes after former employee Jennifer Gryder filed a complaint. Gryder is now speaking openly about the settlement ahead of the town’s competitive mayoral election.

“This is something that was tried to be swept under the rug,” Gryder told News Channel 11 on Monday.

A settlement is reached

Gryder worked as a community development director for the Town of Unicoi from September 2014 to October 2015. She says she was terminated after coming forward about an uncomfortable situation.

The situation involved someone who was a volunteer – but not an employee of the town – repeatedly giving Gryder unwanted attention in an attempt to date her. Gryder described the situation as an ‘unhealthy attraction’ that continued to grow worse, despite her making it known she was not interested. Gryder says the individual ‘wouldn’t take no for an answer.’

Jennifer Gryder

News Channel 11 reported in 2018 the individual had a business connection with the town. Gryder claims the person was a volunteer and friend of Mayor Lynch.

Gryder had a meeting with Lynch during the time of the issue to make a formal complaint, but she said this did not resolve it.

“I felt like they took my complaint seriously. But then they came back and basically just told me that it was a personal matter,” she said. “It wasn’t very long after that, maybe a month, two months at the most, that I was suddenly written up for my job performance that there had been no problems with prior to that. At that point, I sought legal advice.”

In September 2015, Gryder says she received her first written reprimand.

“Within about a month they terminated my employment after receiving a letter from my attorney,” she said.

A two-year investigation by the Tennessee Human Rights Commission found reasonable cause to believe Gryder was harassed, and that the town of Unicoi government retaliated against her for complaining about it. Mediation between Gryder and Unicoi followed.

A copy of the 2018 settlement obtained by News Channel 11 reveals the town paid Gryder $30,000.

Unicoi also had to pay $15,000 to Don Mason, Gryder’s attorney, and $2,500 to the Tennessee Human Rights Commission.

“The Commission will use these funds first as reimbursement for the costs and expenses associated with this litigation, with the remaining funds, if any, applied to the Commission’s outreach and education efforts,” the settlement reads.

The town was ordered to pay an additional $80 to the Kingsport Public Library, where the mediation was held, and $350 to Mediator Mark Travis.

Additionally, Unicoi town employees and elected officials had to undergo eight hours of training about unlawful discrimination in the workplace.

After the settlement

The town sought a confidentiality agreement after the settlement was reached – which was not granted.

Mayor Lynch referred News Channel 11 to town attorney Lois Shults-Davis for comment on Monday.

“Those types of things are a standard part of these types of settlement agreements,” Shults-Davis said of the confidentiality agreement request.

Shults-Davis said Gryder’s claim was disputed and resolved without any admission of liability or wrongdoing. The events leading to the settlement occurred five years ago, and the settlement was reached two years ago, Shults-Davis noted.

“This is pretty ancient history and could only be brought forward at this time if someone has an agenda,” Shults-Davis said. “We certainly want to abide by our agreements and do the right thing, and not disparage [Gryder] and not say anything ill about her. But at the same time, you have to look at this in the context of timing, and where we are, and the obligations of each of the parties. This didn’t just come up out of the blue at this point in time.”

Gryder told News Channel 11 she was being deliberate with her timing, and wants Unicoi citizens to know what happened to her ahead of the mayoral election.

“They need to know before they cast their vote. Regardless of whether it’s an election or not, it doesn’t make it any less true,” said Gryder.

She also believes the situation is something the town should have been more transparent about.

“As women, this is something that we experience a lot of times. It’s not right, it’s not okay. We have to stand up for what’s right,” she said.

Mayor Johnny Lynch will face Alderman Kathy Bullen in the 2020 election

Gryder said town hall was a ‘toxic work environment.’

“It wasn’t just me. It has been a cycle there,” she said.

Town of Unicoi Alderman Kathy Bullen spoke in support of Gryder in 2018, and again on Monday.

“She was dealt some bad behavior. And Clearly the Tennessee Human Rights Commission validated that when she took her case,” Bullen said. “The sexual harassment is one thing. But retaliation by town hall and representatives of the town hall, I think is really the lowest point.”

In her six years as alderman, Bullen says she’s also noticed toxic workplace behavior at town hall.

“The complaints about the behaviors in town hall, mainly the leadership – it’s real,” she said. “If you are not in agreement with the leadership, you are referred to as being negative. I was told to not ask so many questions. I have been referred to as ‘honey’ in a meeting by the mayor. Citizens have been told to shut up, be quiet. There’s the hostility and the negative behaviors.”

Bullen is also running for mayor and says the town deserves better.

“I would never deny the fact that [Gryder] is bringing this topic up right now in the heat of an election. Because it’s important for citizens to understand that there has been bad behavior at town hall,” she said.

Settlement fees were paid for by the town’s insurance, but Bullen said it’s still costly.

“Or premiums go up. We have attorney fees we have to pay. It costs the town. And it’s unnecessary cost. It’s money that comes out of the town of Unicoi budget,” she said.

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