Tom Coffin

Tom Coffin, who was suddenly fired from his position as senior arborist for the city of Atlanta in July 2008, has settled his whistleblower lawsuit against the city with a monetary award and restoration of pension benefits, according to a press release from Coffin’s attorneys.

According to the press release, the city does not admit liability in the settlement, and the agreement must be finally approved by the Atlanta City Council.

However the agreed-to settlement calls for Coffin to 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.

On Feb. 1, the date the trial was to begin, Fulton Superior Court Judge John Goger took the first step in the settlement by signing a consent order to allow the city to fully vest Coffin’s pension rights, according to the press release issued by Coffin’s co-counsel Gerry Weber and Brian Spears.

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 senior arborist in October 2007, with supervisory responsibility for the field arborist operation.

Coffin was fired after presenting evidence to his superiors of what he believed to be 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.

The firing sparked a wave of citizen protests and media coverage.

In announcing the settlement 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.”

According to Spears, one of Coffin’s attorneys, “We are pleased with the outcome. 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 Weber, co-counsel for Coffin.

Jeri Breiner, founder of the Tree Next Door organization, said, “We worked long and hard to protect the trees in Atlanta and this is a tremendous step in the right direction.”

John Schaffner

John Schaffner

John Schaffner was founding editor of Reporter Newspapers.