Columbia County has prevailed in its appeal of the $385,000 jury verdict in the wrongful-termination case of Elaine Matthews.
In an opinion released Wednesday, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the July 2000 jury verdict that said former Columbia County Commission Chairman Richard Reynolds violated Mrs. Matthews' First Amendment rights and retaliated by orchestrating her firing by a 3-1 vote in June 1993.
Mrs. Matthews had contended the three county commissioners voted to end her 17-year career with the county because she voiced objections to an $8 million landfill contract with a Florida man later convicted of federal crimes.
According to the court's decision, however, because the jury found that only Mr. Reynolds, not Commissioner Diane Ford or former Commissioner David Titus, was motivated to fire Mrs. Matthews by an unconstitutional motive, the county cannot be held liable.
Mrs. Matthews could prevail only if all three commissioners voted with the same unconstitutional motive, the judges reasoned.
Mrs. Matthews referred questions Wednesday to her attorney, John Michael Brown. He did not return a message left on his office answering machine after regular business hours.
Columbia County's attorney in the case, David E. Hudson, said Wednesday's ruling affirms what county officials said from the beginning: that the county wasn't liable.
"We hope this will be the end of it," he said. "It is gratifying for the taxpayers of the county."
A decision by the 11th Circuit in Atlanta can be appealed by asking all of the judges to reconsider the three-member panel's decision or seeking an appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or Jason B. Smith at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 115.
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