Employed with the department for 25 years and assigned to Station 9 at the time he reportedly tested positive for marijuana, Neal denied he used drugs and fought his termination in a case that changed state law for the presentation of drug screen findings in public personnel hearings.
The Georgia Court of Appeals overturned a lower court’s ruling against Neal in 2010, refusing further review.
Chris Nicholson, Neal’s attorney, said Tuesday the former firefighter was “doing all right” but did not expect to be reinstated. “We’ve been trying to settle it,” Nicholson said.
That could happen, with mediation authorized more than a year ago yet to begin, while Neal’s new hearing before the personnel board is tentatively scheduled for May 19, board chairman Chip Barbee said.
The personnel board, meanwhile, got authorization from a city committee Monday to hire its own attorney in the case, as both general counsel Andrew MacKenzie, who represented the city in Neal’s initial hearing, and special counsel Dan Hamilton, who represented Augusta in the appeal, are now prevented by conflicts of interest from further representing the board, MacKenzie said.
The crux of Neal’s suit was that he had a Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses against him, even in an administrative personnel hearing. It also contended that the city’s “medical review officer,” a local physician who presented the results, was unfamiliar with the testing procedures used or the Atlanta lab that performed the test and was merely passing along hearsay when he spoke at the hearing.
“He could not ‘say whether that test was good or not,’ only that ‘the test that came back from the lab was positive,” the appeals court wrote.
Neal, whom Nicholson said was helped with legal fees through his membership in Augusta Firefighters Association, originally requested his job back and all the salary, benefits and retirement pay he lost. He has not requested attorney fees. MacKenzie said the city has paid outside counsel $28,500 so far to litigate the case.