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Posted: March 29, 2014 10:00 p.m.

Durden's allegations formally denied

County, other landscaper formally deny allegations by former landscaper Durden

Former Newton County landscaper Billy Durden believes county officials and current county landscaper Gary Campbell conspired to cause him to lose his longtime contract with the county.

Attorneys for Campbell, Chairman Keith Ellis and County Manager John Middleton denied those allegations earlier this month in formal court responses to a civil lawsuit Durden filed Feb. 6 against the three men.

The civil lawsuit is being handled separately from another lawsuit Durden filed against the county. The civil lawsuit, being handled by Watkinsville attorney Kerry Doolittle, accuses the Campbell, Ellis and Middleton 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, though the lawsuit states damages will be shown “with more particularity at the time of the trial.”

Campbell is being represented by Covington attorney David Strickland, but Ellis and Middleton are being represented by County Attorney Tommy Craig.

When asked, Craig said this week the General Assembly passed a law that allows the county to provide legal representation in cases where individual county officials are sued in the scope of their duties on behalf of the county. Craig said the law was passed because plaintiffs used to sue county commissioners individually in order to try to grain leverage in suits against the county. Craig said the Board of Commissioners can even choose to indemnify the county officials, which means the county would cover their legal losses and costs.

Essentially, the lawsuit states that the three defendants conspired to interfere with a five-year contract renewal that the Newton County Board of Commissioners had voted to approve Feb. 5, 2013. Based on articles in The Covington News from the time, one of the issues that came up following the initial 3-2 vote to approve a contract renewal and extension related to Durden’s business license history.

It was brought up that Durden had operated without a business license for a handful of years – Durden said at the time he operated out of his home for those years and didn’t know he needed a business license. In addition, Durden didn’t renew his license until after Jan. 1 in some years – Durden said he believed the deadline to be March 15 as no late penalties are assessed until after that date.

However, the lawsuit also accuses the defendants of making false claims that Durden increased his prices, billed for work he had not done and forged work orders, which the lawsuit argues also led to the reversal of Durden’s contract extension.

In their responses, the attorneys for Campbell, Ellis and Middleton deny all allegations of willful intent to harm. Further, Craig’s response lists several other defenses, including that Ellis and Middleton are “entitled to official (qualified) immunity” because their actions were “within the scope of their official authority, without willfulness, malice, or corruption.”

Further, Craig argues all statements made by the defendants were either truthful statements of fact or statements of opinion, “neither of which constitute and actionable libel or slander.”

Craig also argues there is no “tortious interference with an employment contract because the contract between Plaintiff and Newton County was a contract for services, not an employment contract…”
The case is still in its early phase as discovery – the obtaining of information by both parties through documents and written and oral interviews – has not yet occurred.

Craig said he has not yet deposed Durden to find out Durden’s exact version of the facts in the case and anticipates meeting with Durden and his attorneys to discuss both the lawsuit against the individuals and the other lawsuit against the county. He said he has not yet made a recommendation to commissioners as to a course of action regarding the lawsuits.

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