Augusta firefighter drug test case goes to mediation

A 25-year veteran firefighter, Edward Neal might have applied to be Augusta fire chief “but for what’s happening now,” his lawyer said.

Instead, Neal and Augusta Personnel Board have been litigating for more than three years over Neal’s 2008 termination after a random drug test came back positive for marijuana.

During an unannounced Wednesday personnel board meeting, the board voted to continue Neal’s case and agreed for it to go into mediation.

The board originally upheld Neal’s May 2008 termination, as did Chief Superior Court Judge J. Carlisle Overstreet, when Neal appealed the firing in superior court.

In April 2010, however, the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s decision, saying Neal was entitled to confront witnesses who handled and tested his urine sample, not merely the medical review officer who presented the positive test report, at his disciplinary hearing.

The ruling marked a change in state law and a change in the way Augusta conducts its random drug screens and presents evidence of them before the personnel board, although few or no similar situations have arisen since Neal’s case, Augusta General Counsel Andrew MacKenzie said.

Neal, represented by Augusta attorneys Chris Nicholson and Jack Batson, is seeking his job back and all the salary, benefits and retirement pay he would have received if he hadn’t been fired.

During one of the hearings, former Fire Chief Howard Willis testified that he’d “never heard anyone say anything bad about Mr. Neal,” a firefighter who had been with the department for 25 years prior to his positive drug screen.

Interim Chief Chris James, whom City Administrator Fred Russell recommended Thursday to replace the retired Willis, attended the hearing although no witnesses were called to testify.

Outside private counsel Dan Hamilton has handled the city’s defense. Hamilton previously applied for the court of appeals to review the ruling but was declined.

The city paid Hamilton's law firm more than $284,000 for legal work from the general fund during 2011, but employs the firm on several different cases. The amount Augusta has spent on Neal's case wasn't available Friday.

Given each side’s likelihood to appeal again, mediation might offer the parties an opportunity to resolve the dispute, MacKenzie said.

MacKenzie doubted the Atlanta FBI-certified testing lab made any errors in processing Neal's split sample.

The city of Augusta randomly screens roughly 1,300 of its employees, primarily those in safety-sensitive positions such as firefighters, for illegal drugs.

Last March, two utility workers not subject to random screens were fired for smoking marijuana at an apartment being used in a Richmond County Sheriff’s Office undercover drug and weapons sting. In July 2010, meter reader Troy Curry was charged with selling crack cocaine from his Augusta Utilities vehicle.

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