Valdosta Daily Times

Local News

November 3, 2012

Jury trial or settlement?

Suit by former employees against sheriff under review


VALDOSTA — 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.”

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