After almost two years of litigation, Mobile County reached a settlement in district court last week with Mobile-based animal rescue group SouthBARK.
The suit began in April 2013 after the County Commission voted to suspend and later terminate its partnership with the organization, which helped facilitate adoptions for cats and dogs held the Mobile County Animal Shelter.
At the time, SouthBARK was the county’s most successful adoption partner. However, county officials began to say the organization was being “disruptive to shelter operations” by publishing false information about the shelter and fostering negative and even threatening remarks about shelter employees and administrators — most of which were made on the shelter’s Facebook page or through private emails.
SouthBARK volunteers and organizers denied those allegations and later claimed the termination of their partnership was retaliation for the negative publicity, and in doing so, the county had violated the organization’s First Amendment right to free speech.
The settlement was reached a little more than a month after U.S. District Judge Kristi Dubose denied summary judgments requested by the county related to SouthBARK’s four claims of First Amendment violation.
“There is an issue of fact whether the county’s decisions to suspend and later terminate SouthBARK’s relationship with MCAS were in retaliation for SouthBARK’s criticism or whether it was because SouthBARK’s interactions with MCAS were disruptive,” Dubose’s judgment read. “Moreover, there is also an issue of fact as to whether the suspension and/or termination ‘would likely deter a person of ordinary firmness from the exercise of First Amendment rights.’”
Dubose felt there was enough question about the county’s intention to take the case to a trial by jury, and plaintiff Dusty Feller said in November that she was excited about that possibility and confident in SouthBARK’s case.
However, before that day arrived, defense attorney Ishmael Jaffree and attorneys working with Mobile County reached an agreement and settled out of court. The matter was dismissed from the court’s docket as of Dec. 17.
“We agreed to keep the settlement confidential,” county attorney Jay Ross said. “That was a material term of the resolution of the case.”
Attempts to reach SouthBARK members for comment about the settlement were also denied, but a source close to the case told Lagniappe there was more than one offer made before the settlement was reached.
Commission President Connie Hudson said she learned about the settlement after it was reported by the media.
“Apparently, our attorney felt that he had a consensus among the commissioners in order to move forward with a settlement,” Hudson said. “I maintain that the actions and dialog from the Commission regarding this issue were necessary, and I think everything we’ve done has been entirely appropriate.”
SouthBARK originally named Hudson and the other members of the Commission, as well as Public Affairs Director Nancy Johnson and County Administrator John Pafenbach as defendants. However, those individuals were summarily dismissed from the lawsuit later.