• 75°

County settles two lawsuits

Decatur County Commissioners announced Thursday they have settled out of court two lawsuits filed by county firefighters.

The county government will pay $765,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by Steven Enfinger, Guy Yates and the widow of the late Jimmy Bellflower, a former firefighter.

The county government will pay $600,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by Cynthia G. “Cindy” Harrell, who formerly worked for Emergency Medical Services and claimed she had been prevented from transferring to Fire and Rescue because she was a woman. She also alleged sexual harassment by other firefighters after going to work for Fire and Rescue.

Attorneys’ fees are included in both settlement amounts.

County officials said they would not comment on the settlements, noting it was their policy not to do so.

In a news release sent out late Thursday, commissioners stated they settled the lawsuits upon the advice of their lawyers, provided through the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia Intergovernmental Risk Management Association.

“Decatur County and employees will continue in our commitment to serve the citizens of Decatur County in a professional and efficient manner,” the news release stated.

Decatur County had been appealing a judgment in the lawsuit filed by Enfinger, Yates and Bellflower after a jury in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia awarded each of the three parties $250,000 in April 2009.

Harrell’s lawsuit, filed last August, was still pending before the settlement was announced. She had asked for a jury trial seeking unspecified damages.

County Administrator Tom Patton previously said the county has an insurance policy that covers damages arising from lawsuits.

Background

Both of the lawsuits settled this week were related to a previous lawsuit filed by former firefighter Michelle Lagace, who received $175,000 in 2006 to settle her lawsuit alleging gender and race discrimination.

Lagace claimed she was denied employment with Fire and Rescue even though she was more qualified than two firefighters who were hired instead. It was later revealed that those two firefighters admitted to cheating on the Georgia firefighting licensing exam.

Harrell was denied employment in September 2004 and January 2005. Lagace was denied employment in January 2005.

Harrell quit the fire department on Oct. 26, 2007.

In November and December 2005, the plaintiffs then filed charges of discrimination with the EEOC. On June 15, 2006, the EEOC released statements it had found that the firefighters’ evidence supported a violation of Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act.

In December 2006, Yates, Enfinger and the estate of the late Bellflower filed a civil lawsuit in a federal court claiming they were discriminated against by county government officials. The plaintiffs claim they and Sgt. Kenny King, a fourth firefighter who was not a plaintiff, were treated unfairly when they supported the efforts of Lagace to seek fair hiring consideration. King and the lawsuit’s plaintiffs had also spoken publicly about what they viewed to be the wrongful hiring of two other firefighters whom they believed to be incompetent.

However, Bellflower, a veteran firefighter, died of a heart attack in July 2006 at the age of 58.