For more than a decade as a federal prosecutor in Nashville, Larry Moon represented the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Tennessee in hundreds of cases, never losing a jury trial. But then a string of devastating personal hardships—including the collapse of his marriage, followed by the death of his mother—propelled him into a deep depression.
Moon, now 64, was still struggling with major depression when a new U.S. attorney was appointed to lead the Nashville office in February 2002. But rather than accommodate him during his bout with depression, Moon claims the new management took it as an opportunity to “descend on him” as part of an effort to drive older attorneys out of the office.
In 2005, Moon filed an age-discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Justice, claiming then-U.S. Attorney Jim Vines made it clear he wanted to “clean house,” ridding the office of veteran lawyers to make room for a younger staff. Given his fragile state of mind, Moon suggests he was especially vulnerable compared to fellow longtime attorneys also facing such discrimination.
But Vines—who had a background in corporate law and absolutely no prosecutorial experience before his appointment—maintains he was chosen to overhaul an office considered sub-par by many in the legal community. And although in court papers Vines concedes he might have joked that cleaning house would be an easy approach, he claims he never would use such a method.
Now, more than two years after the age-discrimination suit was filed, the case is on the brink of trial. A federal judge has refused to grant a government motion to dismiss the case, instead ruling the allegations deserve to be heard by a jury.
“The judge examined the record and all the statements of witnesses and concluded that they weighed in our favor,” says Moon’s attorney, Hal Hardin, who previously served as U.S. attorney in Nashville from 1977-81. “We now look forward to moving from the written word by putting on live witnesses to prove what we said.”
Because the case still is pending, attorneys for the government decline to discuss the matter. “Although others in litigation provide their views, I prefer to let the litigation play out without any comments,” Rudy Renfer, one of three government lawyers assigned to the case, writes in an email to the Scene. Vines, who left his post last year to return to private practice in Washington, D.C., also declines to comment, instead referring to his lengthy deposition in 2006.
A jury trial is set to begin Aug. 14—that is, unless both parties agree to settle out of court first. At this point, though, neither side has hinted at such a possibility.
In a 35-page opinion issued March 29, U.S. District Judge Leon Jordan details numerous examples of conduct that he says could reasonably be considered discriminatory, therefore meriting a trial. And although the judge refused to throw out charges of age bias, he dismissed Moon’s claim that he also was discriminated against due to his depression. In doing so, the judge suggests Moon performed as an able attorney, an assertion that actually validates his claim that he was forced out for a reason other than the quality of his work.
Shortly after Vines took office, his newly formed management team reportedly told Moon he was being closely monitored and that his job was in jeopardy. With the threat of professional probation looming, Moon took a medical leave of absence at the urging of his psychiatrist, who instructed him to ease back into work. Upon his return, however, Moon was immediately placed on probation, which entailed not only intense scrutiny, but also an increased workload.
The judge points out that the timing of Moon’s probation could be considered suspect, “especially because when plaintiff first returned to work he was likely vulnerable and emotionally fragile.” Jordan further states the demands placed on Moon would have been considered “daunting” for anyone, particularly someone dealing with depression. And although the defense claims the probation was intended to help Moon succeed, Jordan suggests it’s reasonable to conclude just the opposite, that in fact it was setting him up to fail.
“The timing of placing plaintiff on [probation]…could certainly be viewed as conduct intending to force plaintiff to leave, especially if Vines wanted the older attorneys out of the office,” Jordan writes. “A reasonable person could perceive such working conditions and atmosphere to be hostile and abusive to the extent that he would feel compelled to resign.”
Several assistant U.S. attorneys state in depositions that Moon faced unrealistic deadlines, and that one manager in particular would literally scream at him when he failed to meet them. Eventually Moon filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission about his treatment. Ten days later, management reported Moon to the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility, which investigates claims of lawyer misconduct.
When it became clear he was likely going to be fired, Moon resigned in December 2004, eventually taking a job as a state public defender in Lawrenceburg. “This entire thing has been stressful to him,” Hardin says about his client, adding, “He is coping better than a lot of folks would.”
Although there never was a mass exodus of longtime federal prosecutors during Vines’ tenure, Moon is not the only attorney claiming there were overt efforts urging older attorneys to leave. Jimmie Lynn Ramsaur, an assistant U.S. attorney who served as a team leader, states in court documents that older lawyers frequently complained about being transferred into new positions for no reason, which they believed was intended to set them up for failure or push them to resign.
Nancy Jones, a former federal prosecutor, recalls a lunch meeting with Vines during which he allegedly said his office had “too many entrenched senior lawyers and that newer lawyers needed to be hired.” Others claim in court documents that Vines and his managers promised older attorneys “glowing letters” of recommendation if they left.
Even a few federal judges have vouched for Moon, calling him a “zealous, knowledgeable and capable advocate for the government.” In addition, U.S. District Judge Thomas Wiseman raises concerns he has about age bias in a statement submitted to the court: “I had a conversation with [Vines] in my chambers and I expressed my concern that age discrimination against older AUSAs (assistant U.S. attorneys) was occurring in his office.”Vines and his management team deny all claims of discrimination, instead suggesting Moon was not doing a satisfactory job. “He simply didn’t have the capability of doing the basic function of an assistant United States attorney,” Vines says in a deposition. Asked why other older attorneys also complained about their treatment, Vines explains, “Some people think you are the best thing since sliced bread, and some people think you are the reincarnation of the devil.”
This is exactly why we have juries.
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