Alabama’s Supreme Court refused to revisit a ruling favoring District Attorney Ashley Rich in a four-year lawsuit seeking additional funds from the Mobile County Commission.
After several failed attempts to increase the level of funding the county allocated to her office, Rich filed suit against the commission in 2012.
In March, the Supreme Court ruled in Rich’s favor and concurred the county had failed to follow local laws requiring it to match salary adjustments at the county and state level for DA employees.
The Supreme Court’s ruling authorized a pay range from $103,000 to $245,000, but Rich was quick to offer a “compromise” in a proposal that included a $63,830 salary for first-year prosecutors and a $153,875 salary for any chief Assistant DA with at least six years of experience.
The county didn’t respond to that offer, opting instead to request a rehearing from the court to get clarification on any back pay and other implications of the ruling.
Though the request added another five months to an already lengthy legal row, the Supreme Court formally denied it last Friday. For her staff, Rich said the decision was “something to smile about” after a week of high-profile trials and investigations.
“I’m very pleased the DA’s office has received another victory,” Rich said. “The county didn’t feel things were very clear, but the Supreme Court has sent a message that confirms things were very clear in their order.”
However, the legal battle doesn’t appear to be over just yet. Procedurally, the confirmation of the Supreme Court’s order only sends the case back to Monroe County Circuit Court Judge George Elbrecht, who presided over the original lawsuit after local judges recused themselves.
Elbrecht will then issue an order “consistent with the Supreme Court’s ruling,” which Rich said should translate to the county increasing its funding to her office.
However, the county still has the option to appeal any order Elbrecht makes, and though it’s unclear exactly how commissioners will proceed, an official statement last week vowed “further proceeding in the trial court.”
“The commission’s counsel in this matter, LaVeeda Battle, has carefully reviewed the Supreme Court’s earlier opinion and determined the county is in full compliance with what the court has directed the county to do and states the county has paid the district attorney everything her office is due,” the county’s statement reads. “There have been very public differences in how the district attorney reads the Supreme Court opinion and how the county interprets the opinion.”
When reached for comment, Battles concurred and said there are and have been differences in the interpretation of the court’s ruling, but she believes the county ultimately “doesn’t have any obligation” to increase the funding for Rich’s office.
While Elbrecht’s original ruling favored the county, it also urged both parties to settle the matter amicably. But, even with a new directive from the high court, there’s still disagreement about what a second ruling might look like.
“Based on the [original] decision, we were not obligated to pay anything to the district attorney, and all of those terms were affirmed by the Supreme Court,” Battle said. “We’ll have to see what the trial court decides. For the most part, I think the county would prefer to amicably resolve this and has made efforts to do that, but the county can’t pay excessive amounts of money to the detriment of other departments.”
The statement also says the county is “prepared to meet its financial challenges in a reasonable way,” though it has expressed no interest in accepting the settlement offer Rich proposed in the spring — one she claims would be less costly than what the Supreme Court has ordered.
Speaking with Lagniappe, Rich questioned why the county attempted to appeal the Supreme Court’s decision if its attorney believes the county was already in compliance with it.
In response, Battle pointed directly to the issue of back pay, of which Rich’s attorneys requested up to $5 million in March. The county believes it is “not obligated to pay” any of it.
“The decision is the decision and anybody can sit and read it,” Battle said. “When we read it, it looks like [the Supreme Court] affirmed what the trial court said, which denies any requirement for us to pay additional monies to the district attorney’s office.”
Rich, however, feels the county has already lost the lawsuit but continues to drag it out.
“It should be over at this point,” she said. “This entire time, I’ve had my offer of settlement on the table and the county has done nothing. So many legal fees have been expended by the county to fight this battle, and the taxpayers shouldn’t be asked to fund the ridiculousness of any further appeals.”
Yet Rich has also spent money “fighting this battle.”
Rich’s office has paid about $154,000 to the Helmsing Leach Law Firm for related litigation between 2012 and 2015, while the county has billed the Battle Law Firm and Adams and Reese LLP for $$258,074 since the lawsuit began.
However, since the case became active again with the ruling earlier this year, both agencies have no doubt added to those legal costs. In the meantime, Rich has continued to face funding cuts on the state level and changes to Mobile’s municipal fines have impacted local revenue as well.
Just since the motion for rehearing was submitted in March, Rich said she’s continued a trend of staffing reductions by dissolving three positions at her office and laying off employees. With the budgetary restrictions and a growing caseload, she said her office is “drowning.”
“We are so barely keeping our head above water with the employees I have left here in the office,” Rich said.
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