The Cleburne County Commission last month settled a federal lawsuit over racial discrimination, but the amount paid out is unknown to the public and county officials have declined to release the information.
Candi Momon, a Heflin woman, sued the commission in 2018, alleging that she was not hired as the county’s human resource officer in 2016 — despite the recommendation of the commission’s chairman and another member — because she’s African American. The commission later changed its requirements for the job, stating that candidates had to be existing county employees, against the advice of the commission’s attorney at the time, who later resigned.
The Anniston Star in late July sent a formal request to the commission for all correspondence between Cleburne County officials and the Alabama County Commission Association and County Risk Services — the ACCA’s liability insurance company covering counties — regarding the settlement of Momon’s lawsuit. Also among the documents requested were records of any payment by Cleburne County to Momon, ACCA or County Risk Services intended to cover the cost of the settlement.
Jason Odom, the county’s attorney, responded Aug. 2 with a letter that said all the requested correspondence is protected by the attorney-client privilege and will not be disclosed as one or both of the attorneys working for the county handled all such correspondence.
“All other requested items are covered by the very strict confidentiality provisions included in the settlement agreement entered into between the respective parties and will also not be provided,” Odom said.
State law makes clear that most of the records held by public bodies are public record and are open to inspection by the public.
Dennis Bailey, attorney for the Alabama Press Association, a trade association of the state’s newspapers, said if Cleburne County’s settlement or fees were paid with any public money not covered by the commission’s insurance carrier, that amount is public record.
Bailey challenged the notion that Odom’s claim of attorney-client privilege applies to a state association like the ACCA and a public entity like the commission. Bailey said that the ACCA is not a lawyer nor the client in the situation and communications between a state association and a public entity should be public.
“Communications between public officials and their insurance carrier about settling the case should be public record,” Bailey said.
Bailey said that attorney-client privilege would protect from disclosure only communications of legal advice between the client and lawyer.
In its July 8 meeting, Cleburne County commissioners voted unanimously to agree to the settlement, after an executive session which the public and press were barred from observing. Such closed-door meetings to discuss legal options are allowed by the state’s open meetings law, though any deliberation about what course of action to take is required to be discussed in public view, according to a manual for public officials distributed by the Alabama Attorney General’s Office.
Meanwhile, whether Cleburne County taxpayers are footing the bill to settle the suit remains known only to commissioners, attorneys and the insurance company. Odom said the settlement between the county and Momon contained a provision requiring the strictest level of confidentiality.
Brian Winfrey, an attorney who runs the Tennessee employment practice for the Nashville law firm Morgan and Morgan, said a typical judgment for a case like Momon’s could be about $300,000 if the case had merit, with about $100,000 going to pay legal fees.
Winfrey said that due to Alabama’s conservatve federal judiciary, 80 to 90 percent of discrimination lawsuits get dismissed during summary judgment.