Gators (actually, litigators) nipping at their heels

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By AJ Vicens

Jefferson County is not alone in the type and number of lawsuits and claims against it, a comparison with other metro-area counties shows.

Since January 2006, the county has received 72 notices of claim, according to records obtained through an open records request. Douglas and Arapahoe counties reported similar number of claims during the same period.

The claims against Jeffco range from a death at a 2006 Red Rocks Ben Harper concert as a result of alleged negligence to a woman planning to sue the county for $1 million for alleged damage to her home sustained during construction work on Belleview Avenue.

"It is what it is," said acting County Attorney Ellen Wakeman. She speculated that litigation may, at times, follow the ebbs and flows of the economy.

"Litigation is a little bit cyclical," Wakeman said. "The worse the economy is, the more litigation there will be. The better the economy is, the more transactional work there will be."

The majority of the claims never go anywhere, said Writer Mott, an attorney in the Jeffco Attorney’s Office.

“A quarter of the time, notices of claim turn into litigation that the county has to deal with,” Mott said. “A lot of times people send in notices of claim thinking that they’ll get some sort of settlement and they’ll walk away without paying for an attorney or having to do anything.”

The 72 notices of claim resulted in 36 cases Jeffco has had to litigate since 2006, according to records (the records generally do not include human services cases or zoning disputes. Mott said the number would be much higher with those cases).

Some of those cases were filed before 2006, Mott said, and some are the result of Jefferson County suing another party. For instance, in 2006 Jeffco Treasurer Faye Griffin sued the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District for $156,934.33 in unpaid fees related to an election the county ran for the district. Jeffco won that case in 2007.

The county has paid settlement money out in the last year and a half, however. In one case, former county employee Jack Allison claimed he was discriminated against and unfairly fired. In his notice of claim, he was seeking $250,000 plus attorney fees. The county paid him $35,000 plus $7,870.38 in legal fees, according to county records.

“There’s a whole range of issues going into deciding when to settle,” Mott said. “How costly the case is to try, whether we can be successful. Oftentimes it’s a business decision where we believe we’ll save the county money.”

"Sometimes it's worth it just to move on," Wakeman said.

Most of the notices of claim are filed against the sheriff’s office, and current or former inmates file the vast majority of those.

“We get a lot of prisoner complaints, and oftentimes the prisoners claims are frivolous,” Mott said. “It’s a population of individuals who have nothing better to do with their time.”

A review of litigation from January 2006 doesn’t show any of the inmates’ notices have yet gone to litigation.

Mott said he has no basis to know whether Jeffco faces more or less litigation and notices of claim than other metro-area counties.

“I’ve never asked if we have too much,” Mott said. “We have a consistent amount of litigation. I would assume it’s similar in other locations, but I don’t have any basis to say that.”

Margaret Kroeckel of the Arapahoe County Attorney’s Office said that there have been 60 notices of claim and 26 lawsuits involving her county — excluding human services enforcements and zoning disputes — since January 2006. She said a majority of those involve jail inmates filing civil rights claims.

Sherry Monroe, risk manager for Douglas County, said that between 115 and 120 notices of claim and lawsuits involving the county have been filed since January 2006.

The Adams County Attorney’s Office and the Denver City Attorney’s Office did not respond to requests for their statistics from the same time period.

Wakeman said she doesn't think Jeffco is involved in more litigation than other government entities.

"I don't think we have an unusual amount of litigation," Wakeman said. "We have some unusual litigation, but not an unusual amount."

Contact AJ Vicens at aj@evergreenco.com, and check www.columbinecourier.com for updates and breaking news.