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Suit against sheriff going to mediation

By Justin Boron

jboron@news-daily.com

A mediator has been called in to resolve the federal suit against Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill six months after he fired 27 sheriff employees without cause and escorted them off the premises under armed guard.

The shake-up led to a fracas of a political transition as newly elected officials in the county government grappled with intense media coverage and a concerned public only a few days into their terms.

Challenging a long-standing employee merit system, Hill at the time said he had the right to hire and fire as he pleased.

The voluntary and non-binding mediation is an alternative to a long and costly jury trial in federal court, said Harlan Miller, the attorney for the employees who were fired.

"Everybody understands this is a case that will go on and on unless it gets settled," he said.

Hunter Hughes, an Atlanta defense attorney, said he would be handling the confidential talks slated for sometime at the end of July.

Through the mediation, he said he could make recommendations on how the parties should proceed based on the strengths and weaknesses of each side of the case.

While the talks are aimed at a resolving the suit, Hughes said parties involved could walk away from the table at any point.

Hill said he was open to the new avenue in the case, in which plaintiffs allege they were the victim of age, race, and political discrimination.

"I'm a hostage negotiator by trade," he said. "I'm always willing to talk."

County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell said his overall intention with the suit was "to save the taxpayers of Clayton County as much as I possibly can," and "to make sure the employees continue to be protected."

Bell said he would show up to the mediation but didn't have high hopes for resolving the suit.

Miller also said he wasn't expecting too much out of the talks.

"I'm not optimistic that it will (settle) because of the political situation in Clayton County," he said.

County Commissioner Wole Ralph said he hoped the mediation would work to mitigate the expense of Hill's actions.

"The commission as a unanimous body stepped in to make sure the employees wouldn't lose any wages," he said. "Through mediation, it's my hope the claims can be resolved without any significant loss of dollars."

Although his clients' paychecks were continued, Miller said Hill's actions caused some of the employees to lose money in retirement benefits, promotions, and pay raises.

Two of the employees, Belinda Lumpkin and Jimmy Fallins, retired after the incident.

Miller said he expected the pain and suffering damages to be far greater than the monetary ones.