Lee Co. denies allegations in wrongful termination suit

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Tennessee Republican gubernatorial nominee Bill Lee speaks with reporters after an event with the faith-based prison nonprofit Men of Valor in Nashville, Tenn. on Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018. (AP Photo/Jonathan Mattise)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The company chaired by Tennessee’s newly elected governor is denying allegations it wrongfully terminated an employee who requested medical leave.

According to a federal lawsuit, Michael Warren alleges he was fired by Lee Co. in July after alerting his supervisor he would need up to five days to recover from a scheduled surgery.

Lee Co., a $250 million-annual heating, cooling, plumbing and electric business, is chaired by Gov.-elect Bill Lee. The Republican is named in the nine-page complaint as the company’s “registered agent.”

“When Mr. Warren pointed out that the sudden hostility came on the heels of his request for medical leave his supervisor told him to leave the premises and terminated him later the same day,” reads the lawsuit — which was filed Oct. 30. “Mr. Warren, tried to appeal his case to human resources, but he was ignored or rebuffed at every turn. The Lee Company was standing by its discriminatory and retaliatory conduct.”

Attorneys for the Lee Co. denied the business broke federal and state laws in a follow up response Nov. 21.

“To the extent a response is required, defendant denies the allegations and characterizations in this (complaint),” wrote attorney Jason Hale, representing the Lee Company.

This is the latest wrongful termination lawsuit Lee Co. has faced. During the primary campaign, Lee faced scrutiny over a separate legal dispute with an Army National Guard member who claimed wrongful termination in 2009.

In that lawsuit, William O. Roark III of Johnson City alleged he was laid off because he had to attend regular doctor’s appointments because of injuries he sustained in Iraq. After a lengthy back and forth, the case was eventually settled.

However, the lawsuit was featured by Lee’s primary opponent, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, late in the campaign.

Lee’s spokeswoman declined to comment Wednesday, adding that the governor-elect is in the process of separating himself from the company to prevent conflicts of interests as he gets ready to take office. The process is expected to be complete before Lee’s inauguration Jan. 19.

Earlier this week, Lee told reporters he was no longer active in the company since winning the November election.

“I am active to the degree that I am working with our company leadership to create this transition,” he said.

According to the lawsuit, Warren is requesting a jury trial, back pay, punitive damages, compensatory damages and damages for lost benefits. Warren said he was forced to undergo hernia surgery without health insurance coverage because his benefits were cut off the day he was fired.

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