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Posted: February 13, 2014 10:00 p.m.

Landscaping lawsuit officially filed against county

Newton County’s former landscape contractor Billy Durden officially filed a lawsuit against the county Feb. 7 claiming the county illegally terminated his contract, but the two sides are expected to discuss the case next week.

County Attorney Tommy Craig said last week his office has been investigating Durden’s claims and plans to bring the results of investigation to the Newton County Board of Commissioners in executive session at its Feb. 18 meeting.

Durden’s attorney John Strauss said Wednesday that he "did finally receive contact from Tommy Craig’s office yesterday, and we plan to meet to discuss this case early next week."

Strauss sent an ante litem notice – a notice that is sometimes legally required in Georgia before a government can be sued – to Chairman Keith Ellis and County Attorney Tommy Craig Nov. 19 and had been waiting for a response.

Craig said last week an ante litem notice is designed to give state and local governments the ability to evaluate the legitimacy of claims that come against them and decide whether they’re worth attempting to settle outside of court. If a case is deemed to be worth settling, the county will generally come up with a dollar figure it’s willing to pay in settlement before going to court, Craig said; court trials can be costly and time-consuming, and both parties often try to avoid trials.

While the county tries to respond to most ante litem notices, it does not respond to all, Craig said.

In the lawsuit, Strauss said there "existed no lawful basis to terminate" the landscaping contract between the county and Durden. If that’s true, the county should have given the proper 90-day notice of termination for a "termination of convenience"; the lawsuit states the specific amount of damages is still being calculated and will ultimately be determined by a jury, but estimates damages to exceed $50,000.

Durden is also seeking at least $100,000 because of "slanderous statements and the consequent unlawful recission" of a five-year contract renewal and extension the board approved giving Durden, but which Chairman Ellis never signed. The board later revoked its offer and canceled its contract with Durden because, the county said, Durden did not maintain a valid county business license.

In the ante litem notice, Strauss argued that the county doesn’t even have the authority to require business licenses for landscaping and other businesses. He also argued that a business does not need to renew its business license before March 15, the date after which penalties are charged.

The lawsuit claims "false and slanderous information" provided by county officials and a competitor of Durden – referring to current landscape contract holder Gary Campbell – led to the board rescinding its five-year contract offer.

Separate civil lawsuit

"To establish the motives of certain county employees to perpetrate the unlawful actions described herein," the lawsuit against the county references a separate civil lawsuit filed against Campbell, County Manager John Middleton and Ellis.

The civil lawsuit, which was filed Feb. 6, is being handled separately from the lawsuit against the county. Watkinsville attorney Kerry Doolittle is handling that suit, which accuses the defendants of slander, libel, interfering with an employment contract and causing emotional distress and humiliation and the loss of earning capacity. Durden is seeking a judgment of no less than $1 million.

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