A superior court judge has ruled both for and against the city of Columbus in its request to dismiss lawsuits filed against it and several of its top leaders by two local elected officials.
The judge also ruled that the city must pay legal fees for Sheriff John Darr and Clerk of Superior Court Linda Pierce out of the city’s general fund, not out of the elected officials’ budgets, as Mayor Teresa Tomlinson has said she planned to do.
Darr and Pierce filed suits against the city last year because they say their budgets are not sufficient to cover all of their mandated duties. Earlier this year, attorneys for the city filed responses, asking the judge to dismiss the suits. In addition to the city as an entity, Darr’s suit included Tomlinson, several top city executives and members of Columbus Council in their official capacities. Pierce included them in their individual capacities.
Stone Mountain Superior Court Judge Hilton Fuller, appointed to hear the case because of conflicts of interest with Muscogee Superior Court judges, issued rulings Thursday that dismiss some aspects of the cases and deny motions to dismiss others.
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Fuller granted motions to dismiss “injunctive claims against the CCG and the individual defendants in their official capacities” in Darr’s and Pierce’s suits, but denied the motion to dismiss the claims against the defendants in their individual capacities in Pierce’s case.
Tomlinson said the city is pleased with the ruling.
“The crux of the plaintiffs’ cases has been dismissed,” Tomlinson said. “Immunity prevents them from enjoining our budget process.”
Tomlinson said the city plans to appeal those aspects of the ruling that went against the city, but, “In all, we are happy with this first wave of defense and look forward to concluding this matter on appeal as quickly as possible.”
Attorneys for Pierce and Darr see the ruling as a victory for their sides.
“Judge Fuller’s decision puts this case back on track for a substantive ruling on the merits where the city will have to answer the questions of why it violated the City Charter as to the budget process and why it, once again, failed to appropriate sufficient funds to operate the Sheriff’s Office,” said Darr’s law firm of Walker, Hubert, Gray and Moore, of Perry, Ga., in a news release.
The release said the firm is confident in the case going forward to trial.
“As we have said from the beginning, Sheriff Darr’s legal position is strong,” the release states. “We would not have filed this lawsuit if the sheriff’s case had not been well founded in law and fact.”
Williams Stone, attorney for Pierce, said he was not surprised at the judge’s ruling and he too looks forward to the case going forward.
“When the mayor won’t do what she’s supposed to do and the council won’t do what it’s supposed to do, the only recourse these officers have is to go to court,” Stone said. “There’s nothing wrong with that. The law allows that, and the judge has made that very clear.”
Fuller also ruled that the city must pay Darr’s and Pierce’s attorney fees out of the General Fund.
“CCG is not authorized to charge the amount of the sheriff’s attorney’s fees and litigation expenses for representation in this case against the sheriff’s FY15 budget; instead it shall pay such fees and expenses as approved by the court from CCG general funds as a cost of government operations,” Fuller wrote. There is a similar paragraph in his ruling on Pierce’s lawsuit.
Stone said Fuller has tentatively set May 8 as a date for a status conference on the cases.
So far, the city has spent almost a half a million dollars on these cases and another filed jointly by Marshal Greg Countryman and Municipal Court Clerk Vivian Creighton Bishop. That sum does not include legal fees for any of the plaintiffs.
Stone said Wednesday that legal fees for plaintiffs’ lawyers will probably be similar to the city’s total, and that ultimately, the total “is going to be north of $2 million before it’s all over with.”