After more than two years and $2 million, city’s legal battle almost over

After more than two years and more than $2 million in taxpayer funds, the city’s long legal battle with four of its elected officials is all but over, thanks to a Superior Court judge’s ruling this week.

Superior Court Judge Philip T. Raymond III on Monday granted the city’s motion for summary judgment in all aspects of Marshal Greg Countryman’s and Municipal Court Clerk Vivian Creighton Bishop’s co-filed lawsuit against the city and its top elected and executive leaders.

Raymond found in the city’s favor in all of the plaintiffs’ requests for relief regarding the city’s budgeting process and its outcome. All that remains to be decided in court is a counter-suit filed by the city regarding attorney fees, and who should pay them, or repay them.

“The court's order is a complete vindication of the city and the individuals drug into this lawsuit by the plaintiffs,” said Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, one of the defendants. “It also is a complete validation of the (City) Charter and the budgeting powers expressly handed to the mayor and the council by state law.”

Local attorney Charles Miller, who represents Countryman and Bishop, issued a statement on their behalf, expressing disappointment, but suggesting that an appeal of the ruling is possible.

“We are happy the court denied the city’s frivolous claim that our clients had to pay money back from their own budgets,” the statement read. “We respectfully disagree with the court’s ruling as it pertains to section 8-105 of the City Charter as it renders such section meaningless. The ruling is troubling in light of the prior denial of the city’s motions to dismiss. As a result we will be weighing our appeal options over the next 30 days.”

The plaintiffs had sought injunctive relief from each member of Columbus Council, Tomlinson, City Manager Isaiah Hugley, former Finance Director Pam Hodge and City Attorney Clifton Fay, both in their official capacities and as individuals.

Responding to the city’s earlier request for summary judgment, Raymond granted it, declaring that the part of the lawsuit dealing with the city’s Fiscal 2015 budget is moot, because the fiscal year has come and gone and there is no way to reopen a budget that is “closed, for all financial, procedural or budgetary purposes.”

The remaining portions of the lawsuit deal with future budgets. Raymond also granted the request for summary judgment in those areas, ruling that not only do the defendants enjoy immunity from such lawsuits in both their personal and official capacities, but that the relief sought by the plaintiffs was unreasonable. In essence, Raymond ruled that the city officials acted within the legal parameters set out by the City Charter and state law in budget process.

“The plaintiffs are subject to the defendants’ discretion in the budget process of the Charter,” Raymond wrote. “To support the plaintiffs’ interpretation of the budget provisions would be to undermine the overall budget process, as well as the roles and duties assigned by the Charter and Georgia law.”

The only aspect of the defense’s request for summary judgment that Raymond denied concerned attorney fees.

The city claims that Countryman and Bishop improperly used their city-issued credit cards to charge $7,500 apiece to retain their attorneys. Plaintiffs’ attorneys argued that, as elected officials, they have a right to spend their appropriated budgets as they see fit.

Raymond denied the motion, ruling that there remains a “genuine issue of material fact,” meaning it should be litigated in court.

“This court finds that there is a genuine issue of material fact regarding the defendants’ allegations that the plaintiffs were restricted from discretionary use of the credit cards; and that they willfully and intentionally violated their (city) Purchasing Card Program Cardholder Agreements,” Raymond wrote. “The plaintiffs gave sworn affidavits that they were unaware of any such restrictions, and, on the face of the documents presented by the defendants themselves, no such restriction is immediately apparent. Therefore, these issues of material fact render summary judgment inapplicable.”

Barring a settlement between the sides on that remaining matter, it could be heard in Superior Court in the future.

The ruling all but ends almost two-and-a-half years of legal wrangling between the city and four elected officials who objected to the city’s budgeting process and its outcome.

In late November of 2014, Sheriff John Darr and Superior Court Clerk Linda Pierce filed lawsuits against the city and its top leadership over budget issues. Almost immediately, Countryman and Bishop co-filed a similar suit.

In June of 2016, Raymond, who also heard the Darr and Pierce lawsuits, ruled in those suits similarly to this week’s ruling, siding with the defendants and all but eliminating the lawsuits.

Both Darr and Pierce subsequently lost their bids for reelection, and their successors, Sheriff Donna Tompkins and Superior Court Clerk Ann Hardman, promptly dismissed what little was left of the lawsuits.

Countryman and Bishop also face opposition in the 2016 elections, but retained their positions.

Because Darr and Pierce were constitutional officers, the city was obligated to pay not only for its defense, but for plaintiffs’ attorneys too. Legal fees for all three lawsuits were closing in on $3 million at last count and observers expect the fees to top that mark by the time all invoices are settled.

Because Countryman and Bishop are not constitutional officers, the city was not obliged to pay their attorney fees. They did, however, pay $7,500 apiece to retain their attorneys by using their city-issued credit cards.

The city has filed a counter-suit seeking return of those funds.

“The marshal and clerk have spent a lot of time and taxpayer money shadowboxing with people who were just doing their job responsibly and fairly,” Tomlinson said. “Now, it's time for them to repay the $15,000 they misappropriated through city credit cards and let's be done with this foolishness.”

The city could also file suit against Countryman and Bishop seeking payment of the city’s legal fees in defending that lawsuit, but that decision would have to be made by Columbus Council.

The plaintiff’s could also appeal Raymond’s summary judgment ruling.