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KEVIN LEININGER: Rising jail-related settlements beg the question: Does crime pay?

The Allen County Jail generates a lot of lawsuits against the county, and the cost of settlements is going up. But should it be? (News-Sentinel file photo by Kevin Leininger)
Ken Fries
Nelson Peters
Kevin Leininger

The year was 1798, and three American diplomats had just stormed out of Paris after French officials demanded a $12 million loan, a $250,000 bribe and a personal apology from President John Adams before even discussing business and political differences between the two countries.

“Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute,” South Carolina Congressman Robert Goodloe Harper defiantly replied.

It’s a philosophy that should be seriously considered by the Allen County Commissioners, who several times in recent months have agreed to pay thousands of dollars to settle lawsuits they insisted had no merit — a policy that has attracted the attention of County Council member who says he took a much different approach while serving as sheriff for eight years.

“I always wanted to send a message that you couldn’t just file a claim and get a check,” said Ken Fries, who left the Sheriff’s office in 2015 and was appointed to council by a Republican caucus in 2018.

Although the statistics paint an incomplete picture — lawsuits have various degrees of merit, and those filed in one year may be settled in another — the numbers do seem to reflect an unfortunate trend. According to the County Commissioners’ office, 89 lawsuits have been filed against the sheriff’s office since 2014, resulting in settlements in just over half of the cases.

Six of those settlements came in 2014, Fries’ last year in office. That was followed by six again in 2015 before falling to two 2016, increasing to nine in 2017, up to 12 in 2018 then back down to 10 in 2019. Four cases have been settled so far this year.

Those numbers reflect real dollars — taxpayers’ dollars. Sheriff-related settlements were $53,060 in 2014 but skyrocketed in 2015 to $406,975 — mostly because of a legitimate class-action lawsuit claiming inmates had been denied initial hearings within 48 hours as required by law. But increased payouts were no one-year aberration; after dropping to $40,000 in 2016 the number rose to $87,750 in 2017, up again to $90,191 in 2018, then fell to $75,200. Settlements so far this year already exceed $28,000.

Sixty of those 89 lawsuits against the sheriff, by the way, were filed by Christopher Myers & Associates, which has turned litigation against deep-pocketed local governments into a sort of cottage industry.

As a former human resources official, Commissioner Nelson Peters has seen more than his share of grievances he considers bogus. Even so, he believes a strategic retreat is often preferable to a fight because litigating even a frivolous claim can cost more than settling one — and avoid the possibility of an unfavorable judgment, however unlikely. Even contesting a lawsuit long enough to win a dismissal through a summary judgment can be costly, he added.

“There may come a time to stand our ground. We’d have to look at the size (of the county’s exposure),” Peters said.

But to Fries, that time should have arrived long ago.

In 2009, Fries told me he would rather pay an attorney to fight a bogus lawsuit than to settle one. “I’m tired of handing out money. I’m hoping that, down the road, we’ll see a reduction (in lawsuits). We want to send a message so attorneys know they’d better have a good case (before filing a claim),” he said.

And that message was received, Fries added. Although he wouldn’t name names — was it Chris Myers? — Fries said one attorney “was really unhappy with me.” That could be because some lawyers would rather pocket a fast settlement than bear the time, effort and expense of a trial.

Although the case of Terry Lymon only partially involved the Sheriff’s Department and is not included in the numbers cited above, the $20,000 settlement approved by the Commissioners last November is an aggravating case in point.

Lymon, who is black, had worked as a correctional officer for the sheriff and was at one time an Indiana State Police trooper. He had already filed a lawsuit in 2002 claiming discrimination and retaliation and had filed discrimination complaints against the county in 2013 and 2014 for failing to hire him. Finally, in May 2018, he filed a federal lawsuit saying the county had discriminated against him by failing to offer him a job despite applying for 52 positions he was qualified to fill.

Was it really discrimination? Or was Lymon a chronic, belligerent malcontent? Thanks to the payment we’ll never know, although at least the settlement required Lymon to never again seek county employment.

But there are a lot of other governments out there, no doubt with lots of similar experiences. I’m not excusing government wrongdoing or negligence, and neither is Fries: If a case has merit, settlement or judgment is legitimate. But if the courts can’t or won’t reject frivolous suits or punish attorneys who file them, officials should fight the good fight that could cost more up front but save money — and serve justice — in the long run.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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