A former Atlanta assistant city attorney has filed a whistleblower suit against her former bosses, claiming she was fired after she raised concerns that her supervising attorney was costing the city hundreds of thousands of dollars in unnecessary settlements and committing legal malpractice.
According to a complaint filed Thursday in Fulton County Superior Court by Holly Loy Smith, she initially was told by City Attorney Cathy Hampton that she would suffer no retaliation for drawing attention to what she thought were poor legal decisions. Instead, she was told there was no position available for her, and terminated.
“From the moment she set foot in there, she was unpleasantly surprised at how they did things, and she attempted—as a good lawyer would do—to protect them by raising the issues. Instead, at every turn, they told her to shut up,” said Smith & Katz partner S. Paul Smith, the plaintiff’s husband and—along with firm partner Samuel E. Katz—her attorney.
“That’s not the behavior of an attorney who cares more about his clients than he does about having to work harder, and do the right thing,” Paul Smith said.
Deputy City Attorney Eric Richardson, who is among those named in the suit, said he could not comment on the pending litigation.
According to the suit, Holly Smith was hired in July 2011 as an assistant city attorney assigned to the section handling matters related to sanitary sewer and storm water damage, under the supervision of Senior Assistant City Attorney Torrey Smith.
“Upon her hire it became apparent” that “cases were not being managed or litigated thoroughly and were, in fact, being handled in a manner which prejudiced the City of Atlanta,” said the complaint.
Smith approached Hampton with her concerns and was told to discuss them with Richardson, who oversees litigation for the city. She was never able to set up a meeting with Richardson, the complaint said, even as “her supervisors continued to ignore their duties” and “cases continued to suffer and cost the City of Atlanta money that it never should have spent.”
In one case, the complaint said, a longstanding suit involving a man’s complaints about flooding in his backyard was coming to trial when, the weekend before trial, Torrey Smith sent a crew to the property to install a catch basin, the “remedial measure” the plaintiff had been seeking for years.
“Although this action is a ‘subsequent remedial measure’ which should have been excluded from evidence at trial,” it said, “Torrey Smith insisted the fact be brought to the jury’s attention but asked the Court to forbid Plaintiff from arguing that the installation of the catch basin implied the City’s acknowledgement of liability and for the Court to instruct the jury it could not make that inference. The Court, properly, rejected the request.”
That move, said the complaint, “destroy[ed] whatever chance the City had to win at trial,” and also “likely made the city an ‘insurer’ for the property, guaranteeing responsibility for any future flooding on this property.”
The city settled with the property owner, and has to date paid “at least $164,000,” the complaint said.
In another instance that occurred last May, after arguing a summary judgment motion on an action involving three plaintiffs, the court instructed her to draft a proposed order granting the city’s motion as to all three.
Holly Smith did so, but when she presented it to Torrey Smith he “revised the proposed order to abandon judgment for one plaintiff and explicitly conceded that the plaintiff could proceed to trial.”
“Such an outrageous and unexplainable decision to actually choose to jeopardize the City’s interest (and to at least cost the City the expense of a trial) forced [Holly Smith] to speak out – not only because [her] name was on the case, but because [she] owed duties to the City of Atlanta to protect the City’s interest and to prevent the waste that the Order Torrey Smith edited would guarantee to occur.”
Holly Smith emailed Hampton, advising her that her supervisor and herself, at his direction, had “committed malpractice” by prejudicing the city’s interests.
She met with Hampton and Human Resources Commissioner Yvonne Cowser-Yancey and expressed her fear that “blowing the whistle” on her superiors could threaten her job, and was told an investigation had been launched and that she would be protected.
“Those assurances were lies,” said the complaint. “Hampton and Yancey intended only to obtain [her] cooperation and information under the guise of an ‘investigation’ in order to use that information against her to paint her as insubordinate and worthy of termination.”
For the next month, Holly Smith was pulled from litigating cases and assigned to handle citizen complaints. In June, Hampton called her in and told her the investigation concluded that no malpractice had taken place and “the matter was simply a disagreement about litigation strategy” between herself, Torrey Smith and Richardson, and that it would be best if she were “separated from the Department of Law,” the complaint said.
She asked to be assigned to another position within the department, but was told that she was a litigator who would “always report to Richardson, thus no position existed for her with the City.”
Her complaint names the city, Hampton, Yancey, Richardson, Torrey Smith and her former supervisor, Roger Bhandari, as defendants; it alleges violation of Georgia’s Whistleblower Statute and seeks damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress and litigation expenses.
“One thing I want to make clear,” said Paul Smith. “Whether or not the city attorney ultimately committed malpractice is not the point. When she raised concerns about what she saw, they fired her for that – they expressly fired her for that. This is a definitive whistleblower case; they wrapped it in a bow.”
The case is Smith v. City of Atlanta, No 2012CV223818.