ECB Publishing, Inc.
Come now the plaintiffs – Clerk of Court Kirk Reams and Attorney David Collins – who on March 28 filed a lawsuit against Jefferson County for the payment of the legal fees arising out of Reams' suspension and subsequent reinstatement in 2017 and 2018, respectively.
Which legal action the plaintiffs followed on Monday, April 8 with a motion asking the judiciary in the Second Circuit Court to disqualify or recuse itself from the case.
In brief, the plaintiffs are asking the court to order the county to pay the Collins Law Firm more than $100,000 in legal fees, accrued interest and other related costs stemming from the latter's legal representation of Reams in the criminal and civil cases.
Attorney Scott Shirley advised the Jefferson County Commission of the lawsuit on Thursday evening, April 4, all the while reiterating his and County Attorney Buck Bird's alleged inability to represent the county because of their relationship with Reams and the board.
Shirley reminded the board that the matter was presently before the county's insurance carrier, pending a formal determination by the latter of whether the county's policy covered the legal fees.
“If there is coverage, then an attorney will be assigned by the insurance company in all likelihood,” Shirley said. “If the coverage is declined, however, we will be bringing the matter back to you for another special meeting to talk about hiring an outside attorney, as Mr. Bird and I, again, are unable to represent the county.”
Chairwoman Betsy Barfield asked for comments from the board and Commissioner J.T. Surles alone indicated that he wanted to comment. Surles related that he had spoken with the individual at the insurance company who had spoken with Commissioner Stephen Walker and had gotten a completely different story from the one that Walker had reported to the board.
“He made it pretty clear to me that he didn't paint the same picture that Commissioner Walker did about we shouldn't look at this, we shouldn't touch this, we should turn it over to them,” Surles said. “He did not paint that picture to me at all. And so he agreed to come over and speak to the board and maybe clear the air a little bit about this.”
In a nutshell, Surles said, it appeared that the county was going to have to pay the legal fees and he wondered how long his fellow commissioners were going to drag out the matter and “drag this man through the mud” over the legal fees. Especially when outside counsel had already advised the board that the county was responsible for the fees, he said.
Walker, however, stood by his earlier statement, saying that what he had reported to the board was absolutely what the insurance man had represented to him. He said he looked forward to the individual coming before the board and clearing up the matter.
Shirley then clarified that even if the county's policy covered the matter, the insurance company would likely provide an attorney for the defense of the lawsuit, but not indemnify the county for the reimbursement of the attorney's fees if the plaintiffs prevailed.
“They (insurance company) may say, we'll defend the case,” Shirley said. “But we're not paying the fees, depending on what happens.”
In other words, Surles said, anything that the court ordered, the insurance company wouldn't pay. It would only pay for the defense attorney's fees. Was that correct? Surles asked of Shirley.
Shirley agreed that such was the case. He noted that there were two aspects to the coverage. One was the defense of the claim, which generally occurred in court. Then there was the indemnity liability, if the court found that the county owed the money. The question was whether this aspect was covered, Shirley said.
“And they (insurance company) oftentimes say, we'll cover the defense, but we're not agreeing that we will indemnify. “
Too, Shirley said, since the insurance company had already said that it would not pay the attorney's fees, it might defend the lawsuit to get the attorney's fees. But if the county lost the lawsuit, he said, the insurance would not be paying the attorney's fees. In other words, the county would be left holding the bag, was Surles' point.
His advice, Shirley said, was that the commission confer with outside counsel in executive session and have a detailed discussion about the defensibility and merits of the case and whether to expend the monies to settle the case out of court, if that was the direction that the board chose.
The lawsuit that the plaintiffs filed seeks not only the $114,163 in combined legal fees from the criminal and civil cases, but also the interest from Jan. 11, 2018 (when Reams was exonerated on the criminal charges) and from Dec. 1, 2018 (when he was reinstated to office), plus “the costs of this proceeding, including attorney fees for having to file this suit to enforce a ministerial duty that Jefferson County has frivolously denied its obligation to pay.”
The suit argues that the criminal charges against Reams and his subsequent suspension by the Governor arose out of the performance of the former's official duties. Hence, goes the argument, Reams was entitled to a defense, and having been exonerated of the criminal charges and later reinstated by the Governor, he is entitled to have his legal fees paid by the county.
The county attorneys have until April 24 to respond to the lawsuit.
In the motion for recusal or disqualification of the judiciary in the Second Circuit Court, the argument is that as a clerk in the Second Judicial Circuit, Reams is answerable to the circuit's chief judge, the Honorable Jonathon Sjostrom, with regard to the former's administrative duties.
“It was claims of Kirk B. Reams' misuse of his office that caused his prosecution and suspension,” the motion argues. “Judge Sjostrom was a potential witness, if the suspension case had proceeded to a dispositional hearing. As Judge Sjostrom is still chief judge it is perceived his influence could negate Kirk B. Reams from a receiving a fair hearing.”
In the criminal case, in fact, a judge from the Third Circuit Court heard the Reams' case to assure fairness.
Reams was suspended from office in October 2017 after being charged with petit theft for allowing his former girlfriend to use a county-owned laptop for her personal use for almost a year without authorization. In January 2018, a local jury exonerated Reams of the charge, based on Collins' defense. Still, the Governor and Florida Senate refused to hold a hearing on Reams' suspension or reinstate him.
Reams sued the Governor and Senate in federal court in March 2018, arguing that the two were denying him his due process, a case that Collins also litigated. The federal court found in Reams' favor, and in December 2018, then Governor Rick Scott signed an order reinstating Reams to office.