Valdosta Daily Times

Local News

February 10, 2013

Suit against sheriff settled

VALDOSTA — A $590,000 settlement has been reached between Sheriff Chris Prine and three of his former employees from the Lowndes County Sheriff's Office, resolving a four-year dispute that centered on allegations of wrongful termination and work place discrimination.

The settlement discharges all of the claims and liabilities raised against Prine and the county by Michelle Keene, Thomas Crews and Leanne Bennett, according the terms of the agreement.

Crews’ worker's compensation lawsuit won't be affected by the settlement, Keene's termination will be converted to a resignation and the three may not apply to work at the sheriff's office as long as Prine is sheriff, stated the terms.

Keene said she is simply happy that the four year-long legal battle has come to a close, finally.

“I’m just glad it’s over. It’s been a long, drawn out process.”

Keene added that the three plaintiffs were ready to go to a jury trial, but within 18 hours of Prine’s re-election, his attorney contacted their attorney to request mediation.

Through the mediation, and as the trial date came closer, Keene said the attorneys were able to work out a settlement agreement.

While Prine lamented the loss of the opportunity to tell his side of things in front of a jury, his attorney, Rick Strickland of Brunswick, said the decision to settle was out of the Sheriff's hands.

“Anything that brings litigation to a close is usually a good thing,” Strickland said. “These cases can be difficult for elected officials because the insurance company gives the county the right to resolve the case whether the defendant wants it or not. I think Sheriff Prine's re-election in November and the large margin of victory kind of speaks for itself.”

The initial suit was filed in 2009 by attorney Harlan Miller on behalf of the three plaintiffs who claimed they were terminated from their posts at the sheriff's office due to health, gender and political affiliation.

Crews alleged that he was fired because Prine grew weary of the former Lieutenant's lingering knee injury, Keene alleged that she was forced out by Prine's opinions about women and

former sergeant Bennett claims she was fired because of her pregnancy and her ties to Prine's 2008 and 2012 political rival.

A 2011 bench trial ruled in favor of Prine, but the subsequent appeal by the plaintiffs in the Eleventh Circuit's Court of Appeal reversed the earlier ruling. The appeals panel concluded that the case contained enough evidence for a jury trial, contradicting and overturning the initial ruling.

Strickland said the sheriff and the county won't be paying a penny in legal fees. The settlement will be paid for by the ACCG-IRMA (Association of County Commissioners of Georgia-Interlocking Rick Management Agency), the county's insurance policy, stated Strickland.

“As soon as this article is printed and runs, everyone will move on — that's just the nature of litigation,” said Strickland. “About 80 percent of my practice is devoted to advocating on behalf of sheriffs around the state.”

Keene said she worked for the Sheriff’s Office for 15 years prior to her firing.

“I really enjoyed the line of work and being involved in law enforcement. I would love to get back into it,” although she’ll have to wait until Prine is no longer sheriff, according to the terms of the settlement.

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