No News Is Good News in Election Year for Some

March 20, 2020

These days the coronavirus pandemic dominates public interest to the point there is no other news--and no news is not necessarily good news to local candidates who need to get their message out by the May 19 primary which, in Dade's one-party politics, will effectively decide who the county's new leaders will be.


Sorry, candidates, you can forget pressing flesh--social distancing, remember? And as for kissing babies, not unless you want Mama to take you out with the Glock 43 in her diaper bag. With public gatherings forbidden and citizens cautioned to avoid contact with others, candidate debates and meet-and-greets are out. Perhaps the best way for candidates to connect with voters during this strange historical interlude would be to hang out in the toilet paper aisle of the grocery store.


Photo: Trenton Mayor Alex Case reads in a file shot form a prior year's Read to Lead.


Incumbents are in better shape than challengers during the COVID-10 crisis. Sure, Read to Lead, the Dade Public Library's popular yearly event at which local leaders read to children, and which was to have taken place this Saturday, has been called off amid the general horror of spreading contagion, and incumbents will not get the usual photo opps with storybooks and adoring moppets.


However, as in any crisis, this pandemic gives elected leaders a chance to present themselves to their constitutents as strong, calm voices dispensing encouragement and useful information during times of trouble. Dade County Executive Ted Rumley, who has consistently refused--almost certainly to his political disadvantage--to have anything to with social media, now finds himself all over Facebook all the time in the county's live-streamed updates each day at 3 p.m.


It's not a bad way to get your face in front of the public, and other local candidates, deprived of the usual stump-speech opportunites by this historically weird election-year complication, have taken to Facebook videos to deliver their own Covid-19 messages.  


But whether no news is good news or not for most candidates, it's turning out to have given Rumley's opponent for the county exec position, Nathan Wooten, a pretty fair shake. His campaign suffered a distraction from its message in late February when a Chattanooga television station excited local interest with news of a lawsuit that had been pressed against Wooten and his logistics company, River Run, by a trucking company that said River Run had cheated it out of $86,875 in invoices Wooten had refused to pay.

Wooten's defense, and the basis for the countersuit he filed against Bobby Fryar Trucking, the company that had sued him, was that the trucking company had breached the contract between them by stealing River Run's customers. River Run is a brokerage company that earns its fee by matching shippers who have loads to send with trucking companies like Fryar's that can deliver them. Wooten alleged that Bobby Fryar Trucking had ignored a noncompete clause in the contract and begun cutting out the middle man--him--by approaching River Run's shippers directly. 


At a March 5 pretrial hearing, presiding Judge Brian House, who greeted Wooten warmly by name before proceedings began, heard both sides of the story as presented by Wooten's attorney, John Emmett, and Bobby Fryar's, Steve Jacoway.


Jacoway said that River Run had charged in court papers that Bobby Fryar Trucking had breached the contract by beginning to solicit clients in April 2018, but that River Run had itself breached the contract prior to that, beginning in December 2017, when it had stopped paying invoices for deliveries. "I guess that would be called an anticipatory breach," he said.


He said that in interrogatories, River Run had accused the trucking company of beginning to steal its customers after hiring away two of River Run's employees to solicit them. But he said the unpaid invoice problem had started before this occurred. Thus Bobby Fryar had entered a motion for partial summary judgment, asking for its $86,875 to be paid over forthwith.


"We know we owe somebody $86,000," responded John Emmett, speaking for Wooten and River Run. But, he said, there appeared to be two corporate entities, one called Bobby Fryar Trucking and another called BFT. "Their intial response was: We didn't solicit these people, BFT did," said Emmett. Now, he asked, which one did River Run owe the $86K to?


In any case, said Emmett, BFT had hired River Run's employees away specifically to solicit River Run's customers in blatant defiance of the noncompete clause. "They're asking this court to blithely ignore what they agreed to in the contract," he said.


And the contract specified that if the trucking company did do direct business with River Run's client shippers, said Emmett, it would owe River Run a percentage of the money it made from that business. "We're entitled to the offset," he told the judge.


Attorneys for both sides at some point said: "They can't have it both ways."


Judge House sent the parties away from the March 5 hearing without a ruling but issued one on March 11, to wit:


"The Court finds that it is undisputed that the Defendant is in breach of its contract with the Plaintiff and owes the entire amount sued upon. However, the court finds that there is a factual dispute on the issues relating to the counter-claim that was filed by the Defendant and the potential offset." 


Thus the judge denied Bobby Fryar's motion for partial summary judgment (the $86K) while finding it was in fact owed, in favor of waiting for the "factual dispute" to be resolved at the trial that was then scheduled for Dade Superior's April term.


On the same day, the two parties agreed to continue--that is, postpone--the trial. Then, this week, the matter became moot when the entire Dade Superior April term was canceled as a result of the ongoing pandemic lockdown. 


Thus, whether or not the lawsuit against Nathan Wooten had any relevance to or bearing on his campaign for county executive, the whole manner has now gone away until well past the May 19 primary.

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