City, county, schools spent $9 million settling lawsuits over 5+ years

County also imposed gag order on some plaintiffs

City, county & schools spent $9 million settling lawsuits over 5+ years

NEW HANOVER COUNTY, NC (WECT) - A woman pulled naked out of her bed and handcuffed in an embarrassing mix-up by Wilmington Police Department serving a warrant at the wrong address; a New Hanover County School employee who felt she had been wrongfully terminated; and a man who was shot at a DWI checkpoint involving the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office.

All three of these people sued, and WECT is learning new details about how much the alleged missteps of our local government agencies cost taxpayers in legal expenses and settlement payments made to these claimants and others.

Stories like these often make the news but it can take years for the lawsuits to be resolved, and the public sometimes doesn’t find out how the story ends. As part of a statewide Sunshine Week project, WECT asked for a list of all settlement agreements between New Hanover County, the City of Wilmington, New Hanover County Schools and any third party from 2014-18.

We’ve learned the three local agencies paid nearly $2 million during that time frame to settle claims outside the courthouse. That doesn’t count the $7 million settlement recently announced by the City of Wilmington for Johnny Small, who spent decades in prison for murder only to have the conviction overturned, in part, because the case was bungled by Wilmington police.

While some agencies went to great lengths to comply, an attorney for New Hanover County strategized with her colleagues about minimizing what they would provide in response to our request. Some claimants were also ordered not to talk to the media about the terms of the settlement or the incident that prompted them to sue, or they would forfeit all of their settlement money.

Notable settlements

From the information we’ve been provided, it appears the City of Wilmington spent, by far, the most of the three agencies settling lawsuits and claims with $952,158 in payments handled by the city’s insurance company. The city handles many other claims in house to save money on court costs and insurance deductibles.

There was a surprisingly large number of cases the city dealt with involving trips and falls on city sidewalks and cars being damaged after running over potholes and manholes on city streets. Many, if not most, of those resulted in no payout to the claimant, but there were exceptions.

It cost the city’s insurance company $15,639 to settle Kathleen Durr’s claim after she fell in a hole on a city sidewalk, fractured her ankle, and hired an attorney.

Another $6,765 was spent to settle Argiro Moe’s claim after she ran over a manhole cover on a city street that popped up, damaged her car, and injured her arm.

“Each claim is taken on its own merits and investigated separately so there is no standard rule for accepting or denying a claim,” a city spokesperson said in response to a question about what typically is and is not covered. “Almost all claims are handled through the City process without ever going to court.”

In other claims of note, the family of a child injured at Cop Camp in 2015 sued the city without success.

Through its insurance company, the city spent $18,885 on Kristi Singer’s claim the same year after a tree limb fell on her car while she was inside, totaling her car. Case notes indicate the tree limb had been on the city’s list to be cut down for more than a year prior to the accident.

It’s hard to forget the time Wilmington police busted into an apartment, pulled a woman out of her bed and handcuffed her. She was not dressed from the waist down, and repeatedly asked the male officers to cover her exposed body, which they refused to do. Authorities later realized they were at the wrong address, and the woman they handcuffed was not connected to the warrant they were trying to serve. It cost $9,045 to settle the lawsuit she filed.

“I was scared. I was terrified, humiliated,” the woman said after the incident that prompted her lawsuit. We agreed to withhold her name because of the embarrassing nature of what happened to her. “I was basically begging y’all to put cover, basically begging these officers to put cover, some covers over me and they would not do it and I had these strange men standing over me.”

In another case that has yet to be fully resolved, the city has spent $24,000 defending a case brought by James Bader with $145,000 more set aside by the insurance company for possible future expenses. Bader filed a federal complaint last year alleging a Wilmington police officer “intentionally or recklessly” provided false and misleading information to the magistrate when obtaining warrants against him for several child sex crimes.

The lawsuit alleges Bader was arrested for raping a family member a month after a judge had considered and dismissed the rape allegations during an abuse case against Bader filed by the Department of Social Services (DSS). The allegations were made after a contentious divorce and child custody battle.

The judge determined the rape allegations were not credible, according to the complaint. The subsequent criminal charges filed by Wilmington police were dismissed by the District Attorney due to insufficient evidence to warrant prosecution.

New Hanover County settled 13 lawsuits in the time frame we analyzed, resulting in payments of $415,000. Almost all of the settlements stem from incidents connected to the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office, including claims of injuries while plaintiffs were in custody.

The remaining county settlements involved allegations of wrongful termination. The county settled three wrongful termination claims filed by DSS workers in 2018 for a total $77,500, and paid another $72,500 to Kimberly Phillips following her termination from the Register of Deeds office. Shirley Delores Knox got $22,500 after she was fired from the sheriff’s office.

New Hanover County Schools paid out settlements in 19 cases from 2014-18 for a total of $311,924. Several of them were for nominal amounts of money, including a $61 payment to Redessa Archie, whose windshield was damaged by a softball at Hoggard High School.

The largest payment, for $99,900, went to Tiffany Tobe-Williams, an Ogden Elementary School assistant principal whose employment contract the district opted not to renew after a series of issues between Tobe-Williams and district administrators. She sued for wrongful termination, and NHCS settled with her and agreed not to fight her for collecting unemployment if she was unable to find another job.

NHCS also settled with parents of several students who were injured while at school or on field trips, and with the parents of two exceptional education students who felt the district had not provided adequate educational resources for their children.

Transparency varies

Some agencies were more comprehensive than others in the details they shared.

New Hanover County Schools (NHCS) provided the clearest picture, sharing settlement amounts for all claims, even those settled in house. Although some information had to be redacted to protect student privacy, NHCS provided a narrative and explanation for all claims.

New Hanover County, on the other hand, strategized on how and to what extent it would comply with our request for settlement agreements.

In emails obtained by WECT, Deputy County Attorney Sharon Huffman wrote, “Only settlement [agreements] which result from a filed lawsuit [are] public record… As I said previously we can arguably respond that we don’t have a record that compiles a list of settlement [agreements] and we don’t have to create…I think that may be upheld but not sure.”

Huffman wrote that ours was a “time consuming” request, and she indicated she already had a busy workload.

New Hanover County provided us the least information of the three agencies from which we sought records. NHC provided copies of settlement agreements for lawsuits that had been formally filed, but no information on claims it handled in house that still may have cost taxpayers a considerable sum of money.

After follow up requests for more information, the county has agreed to compile it, but said it would not be ready in time for our deadline to publish.

WECT submitted our original request to all agencies for these records on Jan. 15, 2019. The city and county provided an initial round of documents in response to our request on Feb. 22. New Hanover County Schools sent its documents to us on Feb. 28.

Some plaintiffs were also required to stay silent in exchange for getting paid. Antoine Graham and Jerry Melvin sued officers from several local law enforcement agencies after Graham was shot and Melvin was shot at while allegedly trying to drive away from a DWI checkpoint in Brunswick County in 2013. While WECT previously reported the amount of the settlement payment, we’ve just learned after seeing the formal agreement that the plaintiffs would forfeit the $155,000 they received in the settlement if they talked to reporters about the incident or shared video from the night in question.

Graham’s settlement agreement reads in part:

“The plaintiff further agrees not to provide interviews or information to any news reporter, news media organization, or the like, or to any website, concerning the terms of the settlement…. The plaintiff agrees not to make any comments on social media about either the terms of this Settlement and Release or about the law enforcement videos from the June 2013 incident that is the basis of the Complaint and which have been provided to the plaintiff in discovery under a protective order…. If the plaintiff are asked by anyone about the terms or conditions of this Settlement and Release, he will limit his response to the following: ‘The matter has been resolved.’ If the plaintiff is asked by anyone about the videos, he will limit his response to the following: ‘No comment.’”

** A PREVIOUS VERSION OF THIS STORY INCORRECTLY REPORTED THAT NEW HANOVER COUNTY PAID THE FINAL SETTLEMENT. A NEW HANOVER COUNTY SPOKESWOMAN HAS SINCE CLARIFIED THAT BRUNSWICK COUNTY PAID THE PLAINTIFFS TO SETTLE THE CLAIM, EVEN THOUGH DEFENDANTS FROM MULTIPLE AGENCIES, INCLUDING NEW HANOVER, ARE NAMED IN THE SUIT.**

The City of Wilmington provided a list of claims handled in house, but did not include how much money was paid to settle those cases. The figure spent on settlements by these three agencies during the five-year period we analyzed may be considerably higher than $2 million, but that’s the only amount we can confirm. The city told us we would need to request financial data for in house settlements separately through the city clerk.

For the fifth year in a row, WECT has been invited to participate with several other newsrooms across the state in this Sunshine Week project. This year, the topic for the project was suggested by WECT.

In conjunction with eight other news outlets, we surveyed more than 60 public agencies statewide to learn more about the settlement agreements they strike with individuals and groups, and the taxpayer money that flows in an out of public coffers as a result.

Copyright 2019 WECT. All rights reserved.