Valdosta Daily Times

November 3, 2012

Jury trial or settlement?

Suit by former employees against sheriff under review

Quinten Plummer
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — The plaintiffs and defendants have submitted their final arguments, and now the federal court system will decide whether a jury or a judge will hear the lawsuit against Lowndes County and Sheriff Chris Prine by three of the sheriff's office’s former employees.

On Oct. 11, 2012, a order was issued by the United States District Court for the Middle District of Georgia, Valdosta division, filed an order in the civil action, stating that the Eleventh Circuit issued a mandate on Oct. 1, 2012 reversing an earlier dismissal of the suit and remanding the case to the district court for trial. The defendents were required to respond by Oct. 24 and the plaintiffs had to respond by Oct. 31.

“It's nothing more than a political move,” said Prine. “This has been ongoing for several years, and now it has been brought back up with the election [near].”

Harlan Miller, attorney for the plaintiffs, stated that neither side has control over the case's scheduling.

“I don't have any control over the timing of this,” said Miller. “The only person on the planet who has control over the timetable is the judge. When the Court of Appeals recently overturned the case’s summary judgment, it appears that Judge (Hugh) Lawson went to work immediately on moving this case forward.”

Prine's attorney, Richard Strickland, said the plaintiffs had all but forfeited their right to a jury trial after failing to properly submit a jury demand.

“The defendants contend that they're still entitled to a jury trial, even though they didn't initially ask for it,” said Strickland. “The law normally provides that a request for a jury trial be included in the initial complaint.”

Miller said he, on his clients' behalf, checked “Yes” on the civil cover sheet’s “Jury Demand” option when the plaintiffs filed their initial complaint. But Strickland said that simply checking “yes” isn't enough to demand a jury trial.

Both sides cited cases where a courts moved favorably, with respect to both sides, concerning the acceptance or denial of jury demands on civil cover sheets.

Miller  has invoked three civil procedure rules – Rule 15 “Amended and Supplemental Pleadings,” Rule 38, “Right to a Jury Trial; Demand,” and Rule 39, “Trial by Jury or by Court,” -- in order to have a jury hear the lawsuit.

Section (b) of Rule 39, “Trial by Jury or by Court,” states, “Issues on which a jury trial is not properly demanded are to be tried by the court. But the court may, on motion, order a jury trial on any issue for which a jury might have been demanded.”



Background of the civil suit

While Prine and Strickland contend that the suit, initially filed in 2009, is politically motivated, Miller claims that the case is about retaliation and gender discrimination rather than politics and claims that two more of LCSO's female employees have recently sought his assistance in filing grievances against the sheriff's office.

Leanne Bennett, a former LCSO Sergeant, was seven months pregnant when she was terminated from her post in 2009. She believes she was fired because she is the sister of J.D. Yeager, Prine’s political rival in the 2008 and 2012 races for sheriff. (Yeager was also fired by Prine but is not a party in the lawsuit.)

 Michelle Keene, a former LCSO Captain, alleges that she was released from the LCSO because of Prine's chauvinism and hard-line religious values.

Thomas Crews, a former LCSO Lieutenant, alleges that he was fired because of his age and a knee injury.

In 2011, Prine was awarded a favorable judgment, which ruled that there was not enough evidence to move the lawsuit to a jury trial.

The plaintiffs appealed the motion in July 2011 and the Eleventh Circuit’s Court of Appeals three-judge panel overturned Judge Hugh Lawson's summary judgment.

The appeal’s panel found that the original judgment had erroneously granted the defendants Eleventh Amendment immunity, which protects states and state officials from lawsuits filed against them by citizens of another state or country. The appeals panel decided that there was enough evidence in the case and that the defendants weren’t immune from suit.

“I expect that whoever decides the case, whether it's Judge Lawson or a jury, will rule in favor of Chris Prine when they are presented with all of the evidence,” said Strickland.

“The evidence is overwhelming, as can be witnessed in [Prine's] story shifts,” said Miller. “He dreamt up excuses for why he fired these long term employees and never gave a sufficient reason why. The verdict will be determined by jury, of course, but my expectation is that the defendants will pay largely if they don't settle now.”

Miller said he expects that his clients will receive a seven-figure pay-out if a settlement isn't reached outside of court.

If Prine loses the lawsuit, Lowndes County Manager Joe Pritchard said the county would use its insurance to foot the bill.

“Based on the information that the county has, the matter will not go to trial until the first of the year,” said Pritchard. “If there is any settlement to be paid to the three plaintiffs, it will be paid for through the county's participation in the ACCG (Association of County Commissioners of Georgia) and its risk management plan.”