Lawyer: County can't collect legal fees

Suing to get them would be futile, commission told
Mar. 21, 2013 @ 12:36 PM

The County Commission should not try to collect legal fees from the people who filed several ultimately unsuccessfully lawsuits against it because such an effort would surely not succeed, the county's attorney says.

"I think it's a wonderful idea," attorney Rhonda Bradshaw told commissioners, "but it would be futile for us to take that on."

In federal lawsuits a judge would have to declare a lawsuit to be frivolous or in bad faith for a defendant's attorney fees to be ordered paid by the plaintiffs, and state laws says governments are not allowed to pursue attorney fees from the people who sue them, she said.

The county was hit with several lawsuits in recent years by a group of local residents objecting to policies or decisions. All were either dismissed or the county won a summary judgment.

"No matter what we think," Bradshaw told commissioners at their Monday night meeting, "it's what the court says."

The county budget committee voted last week to recommend the full commission sue for attorney fees in those lawsuits. The plaintiffs already have been ordered to pay all court costs, Bradshaw said.

Bradshaw said even if commissioners want to sue for defamation of character or harassment, the statute of limitations has run out, and public figures like commissioners have a difficult time proving such claims.

"I don't see a path to get those fees," Bradshaw said. "I don't see how we would be successful."

In other business, the commission:

  • Reappointed Dr. Jerry Bradley as medical examiner/coroner and Dr. Vincent Tolley and Dr. Charles Kochert as assistants. John Mathews, head of the emergency management agency, oversees the medical examiner's office as well. He said the three doctors' sharing duties should streamline the efforts by the public to get death certificates.
  • Approved a resolution to support Jefferson County governments' efforts to build a megasite site for industrial prospects.
  • Voted to rezone property at 1724 Wears Valley Road from R-1 rural residential to C-1 rural commercial.
  • Approved a resolution that sets up the policy for burying indigent people when the public must pay those expenses. Mathews said in those cases the person likely will be cremated to save money.
  • Reappinted Bud Ogle and Phil Whaley to the Sevier County Public Building Authority.

Commissioner Gary Cole was absent from the meeting.

svoit@themountainpress.com, Twitter: @stanvoit