Butler County governments have paid $2M in recent legal fees

Credit: Al Behrman

Credit: Al Behrman

Local governments get sued over a host of issues, but rarely do the jurisdictions sue each other.

Recently, the city of Hamilton spent $512,283 defending itself in a lawsuit launched by St. Clair Twp. over annexation issues.

The city and township settled the lawsuit that has been traveling through the civil justice system since April 2017 for nearly $4 million last month. The amount includes interest and is payable over 10 years.

The township was estimating the city owed about $10 million. The settlement also establishes a “cooperative economic development agreement.”

Trustee Dustin Gadd said he abstained from the vote on the settlement because “the one thing I wanted to see was no future annexation from Hamilton (without trustee approval), but I couldn’t get that in there.” He said there are other cities and townships in the state, like Fairfield Twp. that have that stipulation “that’s one thing I really would have like to have seen for the future of the township.”

As for the amount?

“From where they started off and what we ended up getting I think the amount, I think that’s great and it’s going to do great things for the township,” Gadd said.

The crux of the lawsuit was over an annexation law the trustees’ lawyer asserted entitled it to 12-years worth of compensation for money lost due to the annexations. The law was triggered in 2016 when the city asked the county commissioners to form a “paper township” to fix the fact that boundary adjustment approval wasn’t formalized by the county previously when land was annexed from St. Clair, Fairfield, Hanover and Ross townships.

Hamilton Law Director Letitia Block told the Journal-News this was a two-pronged dispute that started with the Butler County Board of Revision, Ohio Board of Tax Appeals and eventually ended in the Ohio Supreme Court, where the city prevailed. That portion cost taxpayers $214,631 in outside legal fees for about 786.9 hours worth of work from August 2016 to August 2020.

The high court denied the writ of mandamus, saying while Hamilton owes the township the money, this particular form of legal action is not available because the township hadn’t proven how much the city owes. The court told the township it would likely take ‘largest forensic title exam ever’ to determine the amount and the proper venue was the Butler County Common Pleas Court.

Block said that portion of the lawsuit cost $297,652 in outside legal fees to defend, which was about 1,073.4 hours billed from January 2020 to August 2022. The city’s insurance did not cover the cost.

The trustees hired outside attorneys Curt Hartman and Chris Finney to handle the Common Pleas Court fight and agreed to a 33.3% contingency fee — an amount that is pretty standard — which amounts to about $1.3 million. The agreement states the fees will be paid as the township receives its annual installments, which amounts to about $132,000 every time the township gets a check from the city.

Trustee Tom Barnes told the Journal-News “when we get paid they get paid, 60% of something is a whole lot better than 100% of nothing.”

The six-year intergovernmental legal battle is the costliest in recent years, but not by much. New Miami spent $487,943 defending itself against about 33,000 speeders who challenged the use of speed cameras. That case finally ended after eight years in April.

Normally when a governmental body is sued, its insurance — minus the deductible — covers the cost. But the village had to foot the bill.

“This is a question of law, this is about whether or not legislation we passed was constitutional,” New Miami Village Solicitor Dennis Adams told the Journal-News previously. “If it was a civil rights case for example our insurance company would have provided coverage, absolutely. But I don’t think we even submitted it to our insurance company and requested coverage. Because I believe we reviewed the policy and understood there was no coverage.”

Butler County has had its share of legal troubles in the past few years, the sheriff’s office has been sued seven times since 2018 and the county has had to pay $680,000 out-of-pocket.

Most of the cases are filed in federal court alleging misconduct against inmates at the jail. The most recent wrongful death suit was filed in by Victoria Matthews the mother of Cody Bohanan, who allegedly “exhibited serious, obvious, and dangerous signs of detoxification, yet received no intervention to keep him safe and alive. His medical condition deteriorated until his death on July 5, 2021″ according to the lawsuit.

Chief Deputy Anthony Dwyer cannot discuss pending litigation but said when operating a jail lawsuits are not unusual and many are dismissed, but the county still has to defend itself.

“Anybody can make a claim, and one of the main allegations is admittedly false when confronted with the facts, they’ve admitted that’s false,” Dwyer said. “So we deal with that and it’s very, very difficult and upsetting. But being a government entity that happens.”

The county’s insurance deductible with the County Risk Sharing Authority (CORSA) is $100,000 and the county has paid that already for a federal lawsuit filed by former magistrate Kim Edelstein against Common Pleas Court Judge Greg Stephens, Prosecutor Mike Gmoser and Chief Assistant Prosecutor Dan Ferguson. She wants more than $300,000 according to the claim because she says she was fired for being Jewish and the three men have bad-mouthed her so she can’t find other work in the legal community.

Gmoser and Ferguson have been dismissed but the case against the judge is going to trial in January. County Administrator Judi Boyko said CORSA did not provide how much money they have paid for legal fees beyond the deductible.

The county is finally free of the lawsuit filed by neighbors fighting a new Dollar General store in Madison Twp., after spending $27,988 for the federal district court and appellate review of the case.

A federal appeals court agreed neighbors contesting the new Dollar General store in Madison Twp. cannot stop the project despite former Butler County zoning board member Alan Daniel’s “corrupt” behavior. The neighbors only appealed part of the case but have now dismissed the whole action.

Other cases costing taxpayers

There are several other ongoing cases where legal fees are still churning. Butler County Auditor Roger Reynolds is facing both criminal charges and a civil lawsuit accusing him of bribery and using his office for personal gain. The county is not paying for the criminal defense but has spent $34,904 through June 30 for the civil litigation, it doesn’t include all the depositions that have been taken since.

The plaintiff also sued Liberty Twp. Trustee Tom Farrell and Butler County Planning and Zoning Commission member Buck Rumpke but they have been dismissed. The township had to pay $67,906, the township’s insurance company picked up $36,349.

Farrell is vowing to try and reform the justice system in the state to make it harder for people to file “frivolous” lawsuits.

“My opinion on civil legal process, on the other hand, is something that I believe needs to be fixed, and I will be pursing the options to do so,” Farrell said. “People suing in civil cases need some accountability for their actions.”

The county is also still fighting a lawsuit regarding Land of Illusion expansion in Madison Twp. The county won at the federal district court level but the case is on appeal and the cost so far is $24,325.

West Chester Twp. has two ongoing lawsuits and legal fees combined are $124,236. The federal discrimination lawsuit filed against the police chief and trustees by two former captains is partially covered — the township has paid $60,953 — by insurance. The township has spent $63,283 suing its firefighter union over the use of traveling lieutenants to save on overtime costs. Since the township initiated the suit insurance isn’t involved.

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