'About $6 million' could settle Hill discrimination suit

By Justin Boron

The dispute between Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill and the 34 sheriff employees against whom he allegedly discriminated could settle for - among other non-financial considerations - between $3 million and $6 million, those familiar with the negotiations said.

The dollar range, which individuals could only define anonymously because the case is still pending, provides for a settlement considerably less than the excess of $30 million a county official had said the plaintiffs initially demanded. It also would allow for a financial agreement that could be largely covered by the county's liability insurance coverage.

Two people involved in the talks said the settlement proposal is about $6 million. Another individual with knowledge of the negotiations confirmed the amount but also said it could go as low as $3 million.

Attorneys and parties in the suit spent a week in formal mediation talks and about two months in informal negotiations, which resulted in a settlement proposal that in principle attorneys had agreed to present the Board of Commissioners.

The commission reviewed the proposal behind closed doors at its Sept. 20 meeting. But it has yet to act on it.

Jack Hancock, the board's attorney, told a judge Friday that money wasn't necessarily the holdup.

"It had a lot of other issues in it, that made it not only very complicated to consider, but also to contemplate the implications of putting it in place," he said according to the court transcript.

The commission is set to meet in executive session tonight to discuss the matter.

But they will do so under some pressure from a federal judge to resolve the case, which was sparked by the firing of 27 sheriff employees on Hill's first day in office, Jan. 3. Seven other employees later joined the suit, alleging discrimination.

On Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas W. Thrash lifted a stay on litigation in the case, which he imposed to allow the parties to reach a settlement. His decision to remove that hold allows the attorneys to prepare for a trial through motions and depositions.

While lifting the stay, Thrash warned attorneys and the commissioners of the risks of pursuing a trial.

"This litigation is going to go forward, and that's going to be a catastrophe for Clayton County. It's going to be a catastrophe for the county, it's going to be a catastrophe for the sheriff, it's going to be a catastrophe for the public, it's going to be a catastrophe for me. It's going to be a very, very bad thing to happen.

"And I don't know what the specific holdup is. I don't want to know what the specific holdup is, but for me to try to be running the Clayton County Sheriff's Office from this courthouse is going to be a disaster. For the lawyers to be litigating this case and eating up available insurance coverage is going to be a disaster. For me to be spending my time making personnel decisions for the sheriff's department is going to be a disaster. This whole thing is just going to be one big disaster," Thrash said according to court transcripts.

Harlan Miller, the 34 plaintiffs' attorney, said he was just looking for progress at tonight's meeting and not a full settlement.

Although a decision tonight is possible, there are several sticking points that must first be worked out.

Worried that this will not be the last costly conflict with Hill, Commissioner Charley Griswell said he is not open to a settlement in which the sheriff won't be held personally responsible.

"He's not even got a slap on the hand," he said. "If you settle and let the guilty party go free, then what have you settled?"

Hoping to illustrate that Hill is the source of the financial burden, Griswell said he would favor measures to generate special property taxes that would pay for costs incurred from litigation related to the sheriff.

Hill did not return phone calls for this story.

But John Stivarius, Hill's attorney, has maintained that the sheriff did not discriminate and that any agreement would not include any admission of wrongdoing by him. He also said the sheriff has yet to receive a formal proposal from the commission regarding a settlement.

Another issue in the settlement is whether the 34 sheriff employees would get jobs elsewhere in the county.

Griswell said he worried placing the employees in other jobs in the county police department could be difficult to implement.

Beyond those issues, insurance also will have some determination of the settlement.

From its two insurance policies adding up to a total of $7 million, the county has dedicated $500,000 in attorney fees and costs, said Michael Smith, the county's chief staff attorney.

That money has come from the county's primary policy worth $2 million. To tap into a supplemental, $5 million policy, all of the $2 million must first be spent, he said.

However, how much of the $5 million policy will be contributed to the case or a settlement is still a murky issue. The insurance provider for the supplemental coverage, AIG, has stated that the county may not be completely covered.

"It's still a pending issue," Smith said.

If a decision is reached tonight, the public may not know the details of it immediately, said David E. Hudson, general counsel for the Georgia Press Association.

But ultimately, he said the settlement would be have to be approved with an open vote.