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Co-defendants in civil suit, county, sheriff, quarrel

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

Though technically on the same side of a case before the U.S. District Court, the attorney for Clayton County's Sheriff has tried to have the attorney for Clayton County disqualified.

The county's attorney called the move "rank," and "crude" in a response to the motion filed last week.

Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill and the county are facing a civil suit filed by the sheriff's former deputy chief, William "Tee" Cassells.

The suit alleges that Cassells' constitutional rights were violated when Hill publicly called Cassells a liar, and then fired him.

While fighting Cassells' suit, the county's attorney, John Hancock, and the sheriff's attorney, John Stivarius, have also regularly tangled in their own aggressive side fights.

Earlier this year, before the sheriff faced four challengers in the Democratic primary, Hancock filed a motion to get the sheriff temporarily removed from office, and replaced by a "receiver" appointed by the federal court.

The motion, which has not yet been ruled upon by the judge, was seconded by Cassells' attorney.

Late last month, the sheriff's attorney, Stivarius, filed a motion to disqualify Hancock. The motion cites a "reasonable belief" that Hancock and his firm "may have violated multiple rules of the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct."

According to the motion, "Sheriff Hill has encountered enough evidence to cause him grave concern as to the upholding of the ethical duties."

The complaint stems from the joining of two law firms in September. Hancock's firm, Hancock, Dempsey & Everett, joined a larger firm, Freeman Mathis & Gary (FMG). The larger firm, a Cobb-county based law office with more than 30 attorneys, and a focus on specialty litigation, was looking for a "strategic addition" to its government litigation practice. The smaller firm, which has six attorneys in offices in Forest Park, needed the "back up," according to Hancock.

Stivarius found, though, that FMG attorneys "represented Cassells in a prior, substantially related matter" to the current suit, where Hancock, now an FMG attorney, is defending clients against Cassells.

According to Stivarius' motion, this represents a conflict of interest, disrespect to the client, and violates professional rules and long-standing case law.

"Sheriff Hill does not take lightly the filing of a motion to disqualify a law firm," the motion reads. "It is only after painstaking analysis and a full and fair assessment that Sheriff Hill brings this issue to the Court."

Hancock's response to the motion dismisses the idea that the sheriff and his attorneys are concerned about anything other than tactics.

"Given the facts and the applicable legal authority on this issue, it is curious, at best, as to why Sheriff Hill has resorted to employing such a crude and baseless litigation tactic," the response reads.

It later adds that,"Although the Sheriff's Motion is replete with platitudes regarding his concern for the 'justice system,' he offers nothing which would support a finding that the fair and efficient administration of justice is endangered by the County's legal representation."

Hancock's defense against the allegation of a conflict includes challenging the sheriff's "standing" in filing the motion, since a conflict wouldn't affect the sheriff at all; presenting a signed copy of Cassells' waiver of "any alleged potential or actual" conflict; and arguing that the conflict rule is inapplicable, because it's about concurrent, not successive representation.

Hancock's response opens by calling the motion "rank," and concludes by charging that the "Sheriff and his counsel have irresponsibly polluted this litigation with the groundless accusation" against Hancock.

The judge in the case, Timothy C. Batten, Sr, , will have to settle the side fights between the co-defendants before the plaintiff's case can be heard.