With legal costs rising, Hill camp staging offensive

By Justin Boron

Attorneys working for the Clayton County government in March tacked on nearly $25,000 to the ongoing legal tab created by Sheriff Victor Hill's personnel actions Jan. 3.

The amount is more than two-thirds the cost incurred over the first two months of the debacle between the sheriff and 34 plaintiffs alleging Hill discriminated against them.

Most of the fees, which place the running tally at more than $60,000, resulted from a hearing to determine whether sheriff employees are protected by the county's civil service law barring dismissal without just cause.

Superior Court Judge Ben Miller ruled they were covered by the law, and Hill subsequently appealed the decision.

The county - conflicted by its simultaneous opposition to Hill's personnel actions and its requirement to provide defense for him as a county official - has paid attorneys on either side of the legal battle.

But its payments reflect only a part of the mounting attorney fees for Hill's expansive legal team, which includes lawyers for several firms.

Epstein, Becker, & Green are representing Hill in the federal suit and are pursuing the civil service appeal.

Kaine & Jones were Hill's original attorneys after conflict erupted in January. The firm is still actively participating in the litigation.

Ben Mathis of Freeman, Mathis, & Gary is representing several other staff members, who allegedly discriminated against the plaintiffs.

Who will ultimately pay for the attorneys' fees is yet to be determined.

John Stivarius, the central attorney in the Hill case for Epstein, Becker, & Green, said the county's insurance company is paying his firm. He would not say how much or at what rate.

But the cost of the firm, which handles cases nationally, is likely to exceed the county standard of $115 per hour.

Kaine & Jones have petitioned the court for their payment, but it is still unclear whether the county will pay the firm's bills.

Since the civil service ruling in March, Hill's attorneys have waged a series of legal attacks in efforts to regain control over the Sheriff's Office amid court restrictions on the types of personnel actions Hill can take.

To a large extent, Hill's power as sheriff has been curbed by a temporary restraining order issued in January, which requires him to maintain the status quo of the department.

U.S. District Court Judge Charles Moye has since given Hill some latitude by allowing him to propose personnel actions that the judge must approve.

Taking advantage, Hill has asked the judge if he can give nearly $80,000 in staff pay raises and fire Lt. Tina Daniel, one of the original 27 employees he tried to fire on his first day in office.

Stivarius said the stepped-up aggression in the case means to take back the sheriff's department, which he says has been besieged by the plaintiffs in the federal case.

"They are running the Sheriff's Office instead of the sheriff," he said.

Harlan Miller, the attorney for the 34 plaintiffs, said the employees are just trying to defend themselves.

Stivarius has also accused Miller of "judge-shopping" in the federal discrimination case.

Miller said Hill's camp is the one seeking a particular judge by pressing the issue of how the suit was originally filed with another federal judge, Clarence Cooper, who is the only African American in the Northern District of Georgia.

Hill says all he wants is a fair judge, not one of a particular race.

Also ahead in the discrimination suit is the possibility of a settlement, which if monetary damages are awarded, the county would have to cover.

Attorneys for each side would not comment on the specifics of a any possible agreement.

Miller said the two sides are planning to sit down soon and hash out the direction settlement talks should take.

But Stivarius said amounts previously talked about in the $30 million range are out of the question.

"There's a long way to go if they believe they are entitled to millions and millions of dollars," he said.