Seven years after they filed whistleblower suits against Fulton County in 2010 claiming they lost their jobs for reporting wrongdoing in the county government, Maria Colon and Gwendolyn Warren have finally seen the end of the convoluted litigation.
On Wednesday, just as trial was about to begin in Colon’s case, the county agreed to pay her $325,000 to dismiss the case. The settlement comes in the wake of a jury verdict last month that delivered $250,000 to Warren.
Still pending in that case is a fee request for more than $500,000, including $106,204 in prejudgment interest.
Plaintiffs’ counsel, A. Lee Parks, whose firm represented both women, hailed the outcome of both cases.
“It took seven years, including winning interlocutory appeals by Fulton county to the Georgia Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court, to get these cases to trial,” said Parks. “Every court that took up the case sided with the plaintiffs.”
Parks congratulated the trial team of Parks, Chesin & Walbert partners Andrew Coffman, who led the litigation, and Travis Foust for an “awesome job.”
Parks also praised Colon and Warren as “the bravest clients I have ever had.”
“Their refusal to sweep criminal activity under the rug and force Fulton County to deal with it cost them their jobs,” said Parks via email. “The system, slowly but surely, worked.”
County Attorney Patrise Perkins-Hooker declined to comment, as did Hall Booth Smith partner R. David Ware who, along with Deputy County Attorney Kaye Burwell, represented the county. Ware was serving as county attorney when the litigation was filed, and continued to defend the cases after leaving for private practice.
Warren was a deputy county manager and Colon was an investigator for the now-defunct Office of Professional Standards, which was created in 2009 by then-County Manager Zachary Williams to investigate fraud, waste and abuse. Between then and July 2010, they reported allegations of bid-rigging, sexual harassment and improper payments of thousands of dollars, as well as a scheme that diverted more than $150,000 in money into a catering business owned by four county employees.
That investigation led to the arrest and criminal conviction of former financial systems supervisor Nicola Hosier for forgery and credit card fraud. Hosier was ultimately sentenced to two years of house arrest, eight years’ probation and ordered to repay more than $130,000.
But their investigations also reportedly incurred the wrath of several county commissioners, who were angered when Warren told Williams she was forwarding the catering business report to the district attorney.
Commissioner Emma Darnell was quoted in the complaints as telling Williams that, “at Fulton County, we don’t investigate ourselves.”
The County Commission reportedly took up the matter in executive session, telling Williams to fire Warren. He then told her that “certain commissioners want you gone today,” according to the lawsuits.
Williams terminated Warren and shut down OPS, telling Colon she could resign or take a job making half her former salary.
Both women sued in December 2010, and the case worked its way to the Court of Appeals and the Georgia Supreme Court before finally landing on trial calendars for Superior Court Judge Kimberly Esmond Adams, who was assigned the case after now-retired Judge Jerry Baxter recused.
According to a brief in early December, both women offered to settle their cases for a combined total of $750,000.
On Dec. 14, the jury in Warren’s case awarded her $210,000 in lost wages and $40,000 in other compensatory damages.
Colon’s trial was about to begin when the county settled.
Parks said the cases’ resolution is “proof positive that whistleblowers are protected in Georgia. That is good news for the taxpayers and the thousands of public employees that the Georgia Whistleblower Act protects from retaliation for reporting government fraud, waste and abuse of public funds.”