Tom Coffin Whistleblower Case


Wednesday, 02 February 2011 00:07

On the eve of trial, Dr. Tom Coffin, whose sudden unexplained firing from his position as Senior Arborist for the City of Atlanta in July 2008 sparked a wave of citizen protest and media coverage, settled his whistle-blower lawsuit against the City with a significant monetary award and restoration of pension benefits. As the first step, on February 1, the date the trial was to begin, Superior Court Judge John Goger signed a Consent Order to allow the city to fully vest Dr. Coffin's pension rights.

Dr. Coffin, 67, was one of the first field arborists hired by the City in 2000 to implement Atlanta's Tree Protection Ordinance. He was elevated to a newly-created post of Arborist, Sr. in October 2007, with supervisory responsibility for the field arborist operation. He was fired after presenting evidence to his superiors of the systemic failure to enforce the ordinance by other field arborists, and his initiating disciplinary actions against those who he believed were not enforcing the law.

In announcing the settlement Dr. Coffin stated, "The Tree Protection Ordinance is vital to the health and well-being of Atlanta. I trust that this settlement, along with changes developing in the Arborist Division, signals a renewed effort to implement and enforce the ordinance in its totality, strictly and fairly. If so, my firing will have served a useful purpose."

The City does not admit liability in the settlement, and the agreement must be finally approved by the Atlanta City Council, but ultimately Coffin will have his pension benefits fully restored as if he had not been terminated and he will also be paid $165,000 in damages and fees.

According to Attorney Brian Spears, one of Coffin's attorneys, "We are pleased with the outcome. Dr. Coffin's case demonstrates again that the Georgia Whistleblower Act is an essential protection to guarantee open government."

"The City came to the table, as it should have, and the settlement reflects the importance of the Tree Protection Ordinance and the need to support employees who speak out when the law is violated," said Attorney Gerry Weber, co-counsel for Dr. Coffin.

For more information regarding this settlement, please contact:
Gerry Weber at the Law Offices of Gerry Weber, LLC, 404.932.5845 or Brian Spears at the Law Offices of Brian Spears, 404.872.7086.


Letters to the Mayor

Below are a sample of citizen letters sent to Mayor Reed after pre-trial hearings in late July/early August 2010 revealed that the City of Atlanta would likely lose if Tom Coffin's whistleblower lawsuit went to trial.  Some letter writers supported Tom's efforts to uphold Atlanta's Tree Ordinance while others were more concerned with the budget implications of continuing this case. There was never any response from the Mayor's office to any of these letters.  The City of Atlanta decided to settle the case on terms very favorable to Coffin shortly before the trial was to begin in February 2011, five months after these letters were sent.

August 24, 2010

Dear Mayor Reed,

This letter is in support of Dr Tom Coffin, Atlanta ’s arborist.

Atlanta has been called a city built in a forest. Trees are an integral part of Atlanta ’s cityscape. They provide much more than just pleasant scenery. Thus I was delighted when Atlanta finally passed its tree ordinance, which was not as strong as I would have liked, but which was a reasonable start towards preservation of our environment.

It is unfortunately not surprising that rapacious developers would try to water down or ignore the tree ordinance. It is painful that they would do so by attacking the work of Dr Tom Coffin. Dr Coffin came to his environmental credo early, but was one of the few who obtained the necessary academic training to become an environmental scientist, not just an advocate. We need people with his credibility and knowledge to enforce our ordinance. It is disturbing, even shameful, that the City would try to undermine his work using quasi-legal mechanisms. I am a physician, not a lawyer, but my understanding of the case against Dr Coffin is that it is simply absurd Indeed there is growing dismay about Atlanta among arborists and environmentalist throughout the nation. I have received phone calls and e-mails from friends, colleague, and relatives from far outside of Atlanta who are aghast that this case has not yet been resolved in Dr Coffin’s favor.

I urge you to familiarize yourself with the details of this dispute. I am confident that if you do, you will cancel the city’s “case” against Dr Coffin.

Sincerely yours,

J. Michael Lane MD , MPH

Read more: Letters to the Mayor


Coffin Trial Timeline

February 2 - City of Atlanta Agrees to Settle Lawsuit

Tom Coffin's lawsuit against the City of Atlanta has been settled with a significant monetary award and restoration of pension benefits.

The City does not admit liability in the settlement, and the agreement must be finally approved by the Atlanta City Council, but ultimately Coffin will have his pension benefits fully restored as if he had not been terminated and he will also be paid $165,000 in damages and fees.

January 31 - Trial Will Not Happen

There will be NO trial starting tomorrow.  We expect more news soon and we expect it to be positive.  Meanwhile, the clock is still running... but time us up!

January 27 - Trial Logistics

The trial will be held on February 1 before Judge John Goger in Courtroom 8A, Fulton County Superior Court, 185 Central Ave SW (corner of Central Ave. and Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr.,), across from the Underground parking garage on MLK Drive.

Tom Coffin's case is first on the docket, with jury selection beginning at 9 am.  The jury selection process is expected to be completed before noon, with opening arguments immediately after.  People who do not want to view the jury selection -- which is part of the "courtroom drama" -- should plan to come in late morning or early afternoon to catch the opening arguments and start of testimony.

Coffin's testimony will probably take most of Tuesday afternoon and go into Wednesday, followed by the witnesses called by Coffin's legal team .  We expect that the City will be able to present its case starting Thursday, followed by Coffin's rebuttal (which may include more witnesses), closing arguments and instructions for the jury.

Judge Goger has a reputation for running a tight courtroom and moving things along quickly, so we expect that he will push to finish the trial by Friday afternoon.

January 18 - Pre-Trial Hearing

The pre-trial hearing before Judge Goger today was short and uneventful, with no change in the trial scheduled to begin February 1, 2011. The most interesting comment came from the Judge, who mentioned the number of green shirts present in the courtroom during the Summary Judgment hearing, saying that they clearly indicated public interest and support and showed that "your client" (speaking to Coffin's attorneys) was probably an "active and upspoken" person who would fit the profile of a "whistleblower."

January 4 - Judge Goger Denies City's Continuance Request

Keeping to his word that the Court would not be considering "further requests for extensions absent extraordinary cause", Judge Goger denied a December 31, 2010 request from the City to delay the trial.  The trial is scheduled for February 1, 2011.

Read more: Coffin Trial Timeline


The Whistleblower Blog

Holding Atlanta City Government Accountable is a compilation of documents that came out of the 2008 wrongful termination of city arborist Tom Coffin, widely considered to be the only city arborist who was enforcing the Tree Ordinance.  This blog was created to 1) request that the City of Atlanta’s HR Department and the Atlanta City Council undertake an investigation of Tom Coffin's firing and building code enforcement practices, and 2) provide the current audit of the city’s Arborist Division with any documents related to that investigation.  The blog stopped being updated shortly after Coffin filed suit against the City of Atlanta, but is still the most complete collection of public information concerning this case.

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