Chapin’s mayor and councilmember find themselves and the town on the losing end of old lawsuit where
Chapin, SC (Paul Kirby) – David Knight, the newly elected mayor of the town of Chapin, and council member Preston Baines, both of whom were just sworn in this year, were reminded recently that the newly elected officials of Chapin were mired in a four-year-old lawsuit brought against the Town of Chapin, former Mayor Skip Wilson, and former Councilmember Greg White initiated in March of 2014.
The lawsuit was originally brought by past councilmembers Robbie Frick, Vivian “Bibi” Atkins, and current Council member Kay Hollis. The two new guys, Knight and Baines, ended up becoming the defendants by default in January when they took office. This was actually the same way that Council member Al Koon, and Council member Mike Clonts became two of the plaintiffs alongside Kay Hollis in the case. The plaintiff’s attorney filed the suit against the town, Skip Wilson and Greg White in their official capacities as elected officials of Chapin, not the men as individuals.
In 2014, Frick, Atkins, and Hollis filed suit against the town, Mayor Wilson and Councilman White after Wilson said that the council members couldn’t call a special meeting and set its agenda without the mayor’s final approval of the agenda. Wilson maintained that the town had an ordinance stating the elected mayor had final approval on all meeting agendas. Because Wilson didn’t approve the agenda of the special meeting, he and White didn’t attend. The three other councilmembers who had called the meeting filed suit in court.
The three offended officials hired Columbia attorney Andy Syrett to represent them. Syrett filed the suit naming as the defendants the Town of Chapin, the mayor of Chapin in his official capacity, Skip Wilson at the time, and Councilman Gregg White in his official capacity. Since Wilson and White no longer hold those offices, the defendants in the case became the people who won the seats in the November election, Knight and Baines. Somehow, Council members Koon and Clonts’ names landed in the final draft of the last ruling as a plaintiff with Hollis; This is the way our laws work I am told!
Read the ruling changing the defendants to the newly elected officials and the ruling of the court of appeals that reversed the first court in part. It says the defendants should pay court and attorney fees. It still hasn't been signed by the judge making it an order. See by clicking here: Click Here
This original case went back and forth for about four years. At first, a judge ruled against Frick, Atkins, and Hollis in their lawsuit, effectively making them the losers. Syrett quickly filed an appeal on their behalf. The case was then heard in the court of appeals. That case’s outcome basically reversed the first judge’s opinion for the most part, making Frick, Atkins, and Hollis the winners in part.
In his opinion, the appellate judge said that the town’s ordinance read the mayor had the final say on agendas for the regularly scheduled meetings. The ordinance did not, however address special called town council meetings. The majority of the council could call the special meeting and they could set an agenda, but that was in conflict to the town's ordinances. It was a win of sorts for the three.
See appellate court's partial reversal with complete case history detailed in PDF form by clicking here: CLICK HERE
In December 2017, outgoing Mayor Skip Wilson told the town’s finance director to pay Syrett's attorney fees totaling $1,678.72 for his work on the appeal for the plaintiffs. He did this based on the opinion of the court of appeals. Finance Director Laura Culler immediately wrote and sent Syrett his check by mail.
All may have ended right here if Syrett had simply accepted the payment in December, finishing the sordid situation. By sending the check, it appears as if Wilson, on behalf of the town, was trying to put the whole mess behind them.
Because the circuit judge hadn’t issued his final ruling in December of 2017, Syrett and the town’s attorney once again appeared before a judge on January 29, 2018. During that hearing, the judge was presented a draft ordered by one of the attorneys ordering Chapin to pay the fees owed the “winning” trio’s attorney, Andy Syrett. At that hearing, Syrett argued that Wilson and White should pay his attorney fees out of their own pockets. The judge vehemently disagreed and pointed out the wording in the original suit. Remember, Syrett had filed against the town and Wilson and White in their official capacities as elected officials of the town, not them as individuals. Therefore, the judge told Syrett that the town would have to pay up, not Wilson and White.
At the last town council meeting on Tuesday, February 6, the new elected leaders of Chapin unanimously approved the payment to Syrett, even though as of Monday February 12, 2018, the order still hasn’t been signed by the judge and officially delivered to the town. Several council members say they thought the town had received the signed order when they voted yes to pay the bill.
Over last weekend, Knight, an attorney himself, e-mailed a copy of the unsigned order to all members of the council. Again, Koon and Clonts had been named as plaintiffs in the draft of the order. Koon, Clonts and Hollis appear to be named the prevailing parties; Frick and Atkins are now out of the picture!
It might also be interesting to note that attorneys we have talked to have said that the judge doesn’t have to sign the order as written and presented by one of the lawyers involved in the action. He could choose to modify it before he signs it changing the fees or other points in it. You can see the unsigned draft by clicking the first link in this story or here again. CLICK
Now it really gets tricky. First, both Frick and Atkins had retired from the council before they had time to even schedule another special called meeting after seeing the appellate court's ruling late in 2017. Although Hollis still serves on the council, the only thing she really won was validation that she and a majority could schedule a special meeting and set its agenda. In the end, proving that Wilson was not 100% right, and fling the suit against he and White, cost the town and its residents big bucks.
Remember, Wilson and White are gone too; one had lost his race for re-election, and the other didn’t run for re-election. Because Syrett had brought the suit against the two defendants in their official capacity, legally any loss transferred to whoever held those seats. Thus, Knight and Baines are legally listed as the losing parties, and Koon and Clonts were named as plaintiff or winners with Hollis. Maybe it had something to do with who sat in what chair when the new council was sworn in. Really, I couldn’t make this up, and it’s all in public record!
It doesn’t quite end here. The town is interviewing for the position of town attorney, a position the new mayor, Knight, held for over 20 years. In fact, they began advertising for that position this week. At one point, Syrett had thrown his hat into the ring for that job. Several weeks ago, he asked that he be removed from consideration. Mayor Knight said recently that Syrett had heard another attorney who practiced in Chapin had also applied and Syrett felt like she was more qualified.
In December, a letter was sent to the SC Attorney General’s Office regarding Syrett. That letter asked the AG to provide an opinion on whether it would be ethical for an attorney who sued the town in the past, to become Chapin’s attorney now. It doesn’t appear as if AG Alan Wilson’s office has issued that opinion yet.
In the end, it seems as if the only real winners in the case will be the attorneys who all got paid by taxpayers. The town’s attorney, Todd Carroll of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, LLP, was paid by Chapin, and later they were reimbursed by SC State Insurance Fund to the tune of $81,500.02. The town was on the hook for $9,124.99. Later, Chapin wrote the trio of the original plaintiff’s attorney Andy Syrett the check for $1,678.72. In total, the good people of Chapin enriched the two attorneys or their firms by $10,803.71, and the state insurance firm coughed up the rest.
Frick, Atkins, and Hollis were told by the court they could have a special called meeting and could establish an agenda for that meeting, but again, that's in direct conflict with the town's current ordinances. it really is a hollow victory of sorts. In the end, it seems as if the only real losers will be the taxpayers and businesses who foot the bills for the town, if this ever ends.