The Grant County Court on Aug. 29 moved one step closer to settling matters related to a lawsuit brought by the Oregonian Publishing Co.
Following an executive session held for discussing litigation, the court unanimously approved paying $28,000 to The Oregonian newspaper for legal fees associated with the company’s lawsuit against Glenn Palmer, Sally DeFord and the Grant County Sheriff’s Office under Oregon public records law.
The $28,000, which does not include interest on the legal fees, will be taken from the sheriff’s office’s communications equipment budget. The county had budgeted $180,000 this fiscal year for anticipated repairs to radio towers around the county, Grant County Treasurer Julie Ellison said.
The Oregonian sued Palmer, DeFord and the sheriff’s office to compel the disclosure of public records in May 2016. The suit was dismissed when the records were disclosed, but a judge awarded The Oregonian $28,337 in attorney fees.
A lawsuit filed by Palmer, DeFord and the sheriff’s office against Grant County and its board of commissioners remains unresolved, as of Friday.
Palmer and DeFord incurred $41,355 in fees while represented by a private law firm, Hostetter Law Group, according to a complaint they filed in March. The complaint claimed the county is legally required to cover all of the fees under the Oregon Tort Claims Act because The Oregonian’s lawsuit was a tort that arose from alleged acts or omissions occurring during the performance of duty.
Senior Judge Patricia Sullivan ruled the Oregon Tort Claims Act did not apply to a request for disclosure of records under Oregon public records law and dismissed parts of the complaint seeking indemnity in a July 10 order.
“The plaintiffs appear to be requesting reimbursement for attorney fees they incurred complying with and opposing the public records request,” Sullivan said in the order. “... This appears to be a budget matter internal to Grant County. In any event, there are no facts pled as to why the defendants would be liable to the attorneys hired by the Sheriff or why he hired outside counsel, instead of availing the County Counsel for assistance, as would normally be done.”
After the judge’s order of dismissal, attorney Benjamin Boyd, on behalf of Palmer, DeFord and the sheriff’s office, filed a motion to modify the judge’s findings and to enter substitute findings and for leave to amend their original complaint July 20.
“Normally, a county official sued for an injunction pursuant to Oregon’s Public Records Law would be able to avail him or herself of County Counsel for legal assistance,” Boyd said in the motion. “In this highly irregular case, Grant County refused to afford Sheriff Palmer, Civil Deputy DeFord, and the Grant County Sheriff’s Office such assistance and instead determined that it would not engage counsel to defend its officers.”
Boyd also argued the judge failed to consider the full definition of a tort when ruling on the matter.
A hearing was held on the motion Aug. 10. The judge said she would take it under advisement and promptly make a decision.