A. Lee Parks ()
After the Georgia Supreme Court declined to hear its appeal last month, Fulton County has paid about $4.8 million to settle claims by 23 current and former law clerks for the judges of the Fulton County State and Superior Courts.
The payment ends most of an eight-year dispute over a since-discontinued program under which lawyers for the county attorney’s office were paid more than the judges’ attorneys were paid. The sum includes more than $1 million in accrued interest, and almost $95,000 in attorney fees.
The county still faces suits seeking the same relief on behalf of the staff lawyers for the county Solicitor’s Office, Juvenile Court and, most recently, more than 100 current and former prosecutors in Fulton District Attorney Paul Howard’s office.
Lee Parks, whose firm of Parks Chesin & Walbert is handling all of those cases, said it was “hard to believe” the law clerks’ litigation had finally been resolved.
“Sometimes, in these kinds of cases, it goes the full 24 innings, but it finally happened,” said Parks. “The checks have been delivered. They’re in the clerks’ hands.”
Even so, said Parks, the county has still not raised the clerks’ current salaries to the levels commensurate with those that the back wages were calculated upon by an arbitrator, so that issue remains alive.
“Although there were a number of issues with the Arbitrator’s award in this singularly unique case, the County has fully complied with the decision,” said Fulton County Attorney R. David Ware, responding via email to a query concerning the just-settled case and whether it would affect the other lawyers’ suits.
“Since this was such a unique set of circumstances, we do not expect the case to have any bearing on any other matters,” Ware said.
The dispute is rooted in a “premium pay” program the county adopted in 1997, when the Board of Commissioners voted to raise the salaries of staff county attorneys by roughly 36 percent but left other county-employed lawyers at their same levels.
In 2006, the law clerks filed a grievance asserting that they were making about $20,000 a year less than their county Law Department counterparts, despite performing similar duties. The county Grievance Review Committee refused to hear the case, and in 2008 the clerks filed a mandamus action in Fulton County Superior Court demanding the committee address their case. The Fulton bench recused, and the case was transferred to DeKalb County, where it was assigned to Superior Court Judge Mark Anthony Scott. He ordered the grievance heard.
The grievance panel ruled against the law clerks in 2009, and the law clerks filed an arbitration demand with the county. In December 2011 the arbitrator, Robert Dokson, awarded the law clerks $4,354,692.90 in back pay and prejudgment interest. When the law clerks filed a motion to confirm the award with the court, the county opposed it, arguing it was protected by sovereign immunity.
Scott affirmed the arbitrator’s award, and he also awarded the law clerks $94,557 in attorney fees per Georgia’s statute allowing such an award in cases in which suits or defenses are deemed frivolous.
The county appealed, but in July the Georgia Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s order. On Jan. 6, the Georgia Supreme Court denied certiorari in the case, and the county paid up, Parks said.
But the county argued in its appellate briefs that the calculations for the clerks’ back pay that had been stipulated during the arbitration were “based on a faulty methodology” concerning the way the lawyers’ pay is calculated. The court clerks were given raises based on the length of their service, the county argued, while the Law Department county lawyers get no such “bump” based on tenure.
The county used that argument to justify not raising the clerks’ pay to the levels agreed upon in the arbitration award, Parks said.
“They’ve taken this small step of raising people to the lowest possible level of staff attorney in the county attorney’s office, and said a new lawyer straight out of law school should make the same as a 22-year veteran,” Parks said.
He said that issue will be raised when the case is remanded back to Scott on remittitur.