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Attorneys fight over money in Tuggle-Hill case

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

Attorneys on both sides of the lawsuit between the current sheriff and the former sheriff's brother have filed money-related motions, in the last week.

Sheriff Victor Hill's attorney has moved to appeal the jury's verdict of $475,000, saying the amount "should shock the conscious."

"The jury's verdict," attorney James Dearing wrote in the appeal filed late last week, "is excessive, unfounded [and] exceeds the weight of the evidence of trial."

A federal jury found Hill had violated Tuggle's civil rights when he had the man arrested on charges of making harassing phone calls. The incident occurred on Hill's second day in office, when he replaced Tuggle's brother, Stanley, in 2005, and promptly fired a slate of deputies, including most of the upper ranks of the office. Tuggle, angered at the news, left two messages asking to meet with Hill and calling him a "short lil' [expletive] sheriff."

He was arrested the next day. The charges against him were later dismissed, and Tuggle sued, claiming his constitutionally protected rights to free speech, and not to be wrongfully arrested, were violated by Hill. A federal jury of eight, after a four-day trial and more than two days of deliberation, agreed with Tuggle and awarded him the $475,000.

County officials have said the county, not the sheriff, will have to pay the sum. According to them, all the insurance money from 2005 has already been spent in settlements with the deputies wrongfully fired, and the payment will come out of the county's coffers.

Dearing is considering appealing the jury's verdict on other grounds also, according to court records, but made an immediate motion to counter the cost. The amount, Dearing argues, "was neither reasonable nor proportionate" to the less than 30 hours Tuggle spent in the county jail.

Tuggle's attorney, William Atkins, said the appeal isn't likely to do anything except take time and add to mounting attorney's fees.

"The amount of the jury's verdict is well within acceptable parameters and there are no other significant issues to appeal," Atkins said. "It will be unfortunate if the citizens of Clayton County end up footing the bill for their lawyers and Mr. Tuggle's lawyers to litigate an appeal with so little chance of success."

Atkins also filed a money-related motion, asking for attorneys fees of almost $175,000. The amount would be in addition to the $475,000 already awarded to Tuggle.

That would put the bill at $650,000, plus the fees for the county's own attorneys.

Atkins said his bill is subject to change, though, as he fights the appeal to overturn the verdict.