July 26, 2013

Magistrate judge recommends dismissal of Cochran from lawsuit

Charles Oliver

— A federal magistrate judge on Thursday recommended that former Murray County chief magistrate judge Bryant Cochran be dismissed from a federal civil rights lawsuit.

Three former employees of Murray County Magistrate Court — Yesenia Galvan, Sonya Petty and Virginia Rector — sued Cochran and Murray County in March, claiming Cochran made explicit and lewd comments to them in and around the office.

Magistrate Judge Walter Johnson wrote that Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act allows employees to seek relief from their employer for violations of their civil rights. But they may not seek relief from other employees.

“The complaint does not allege that Mr. Cochran was plaintiffs’ employer; to the contrary, it alleges that Mr. Cochran and all three plaintiffs were employees of Murray County,” Johnson wrote.

Johnson said that means Cochran cannot be sued “in his individual capacity.”

The matter now goes to U.S. District Court Judge Harold Murphy.

“This is one very small step toward clearing Bryant Cochran’s good name,” said Phil Friduss, the lawyer defending Cochran in the civil suit. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint. And we will continue our zealous and ethical defense of Cochran against the scandalous accusations of others.”

Attorneys representing the women stood by their clients’ claims Thursday evening.

“It’s not that alarming a development because you kind of go with a shotgun approach,” McCracken Poston said. “If some of your theories don’t survive, others do.”

“This is a magistrate’s report to the federal judge,” said Stuart James. “The parties have 15 days to object to the magistrate judge’s ruling and I am going to be objecting because there’s a certain area that the judge is dealing with that I don’t think is correct in terms of supervisory or employment capacity. And I think that jumping the gun in terms of saying Bryant Cochran might be out of the case is premature and you have to wait until the process is complete, until the objections are ruled upon by the U.S. District Court judge.”

“The ruling does not mean that Bryant Cochran is not responsible for what he did,” James said. “What the law says is what he did wrong is going to be the county’s responsibility.”

The magistrate judge also recommended that some of the women’s claims against Murray County be dismissed but recommended they be allowed to amend their complaint to better state their claims. That recommendation will also go to Murphy.

Cochran, Murray County government, the Murray County Sheriff’s Office and several former law enforcement officers have also been sued in federal court by Angela Garmley and Jason Southern.

Garmley had accused Cochran of propositioning her when she went to his court on a legal matter. Shortly after that, Garmley’s vehicle, which Southern was driving, was stopped by then-sheriff’s deputy Joshua Lamar Greeson. Greeson claimed he found a magnetized container of meth underneath the vehicle and arrested the two.

Those charges were quickly dropped after investigators said someone planted the meth. Greeson and his supervisor, then-captain Michael Henderson, who is Cochran’s cousin, were later fired from the sheriff’s office for lying to investigators. Both pleaded guilty to obstruction earlier this year and are awaiting sentencing.