Originally created 01/04/01

Suit ruling appeal opens



Columbia County's appeal of a $385,000 judgment in the wrongful-termination lawsuit won by Elaine Matthews began Wednesday.

Although U.S. District Chief Judge Dudley H. Bowen Jr. ruled before the July trial that Mrs. Matthews could not proceed with claims county officials violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations law, he ruled Mrs. Matthews could ask a jury to determine if three county commissioners voted to end her 17-year career with the county because she voiced objections to an $8 million landfill contract.

In July, a jury agreed with Mrs. Matthews that former commission Chairman Richard Reynolds violated her First Amendment rights and retaliated by orchestrating her firing in June 1993.

David Hudson, representing the county, argued Wednesday that the county could not be held liable if a majority of commissioners didn't act in retaliation. The jury found that only Mr. Reynolds, not Commissioner Diane Ford or former Commissioner David Titus, acted in retaliation, he said.

Judge Bowen disagreed.

Another attack on the verdict was that the jury heard the testimony of only one man, one with credibility problems, to be convinced Mr. Reynolds intended to retaliate against Mrs. Matthews. The witness, who wanted the landfill contract, was later convicted of felony crimes in Florida.

The jury had more than one man's word, Judge Bowen said. It had inference evidence presented about the called meeting at which Mrs. Matthews was fired, he said.

Mrs. Matthews' attorney, John M. Brown, argued the facts of the case were very different from those presented by Columbia County. The three commissioners sued by Mrs. Matthews acted as a voting bloc, and all three knew of Mrs. Matthews' remarks about the proposed landfill deal, he said.

Judge Bowen did not indicate when he might issue a decision about the appeal, or when he might determine how much Mrs. Matthews' attorneys should be awarded in attorney fees and court costs.

Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226.