Newton County is investigating claims made by former county lawn-care contractor Billy Durden, who informed the county in late November he is planning to sue, claiming wrongful termination and libel and slander.
“The county is not ignoring Mr. Durden’s claim. It always takes ante litem notices seriously. The county has not yet responded to Mr. Durden’s ante litem notice because the county is now in the process of investigating his claims,” County Attorney Tommy Craig said in a Friday email. “The investigation should be complete very soon. After the investigation is complete, we expect to report its findings to the Board of Commissioners in executive session.”
Durden’s attorney John Strauss sent an ante litem notice – a notice sometimes legally required in Georgia before a government can be sued – to Chairman Keith Ellis and Craig Nov. 19, but Strauss said Thursday he had not yet received a response and plans to move forward with a formal lawsuit.
“Although I had hoped that the county would at least be willing to discuss Mr. Durden’s circumstances, apparently the county is unwilling to voluntarily address these issues. Consequently, I see no choice but to pursue litigation in the near future,” Strauss said in a Thursday email.
The ante litem notice states that “slanderous misinformation that was both promulgated and received by various county employees and officials” led to the Newton County Board of Commissioners voting to cancel its lawn care contract with Durden’s company, Durden’s Lawn Maintenance, in late February 2013 and revoke a planned five-year contract extension the board had approved earlier in February.
Durden had been the county’s lawn maintenance contractor for more than a decade.
In the notice, Durden seeks damages of more than $1.3 million total for unlawfully canceling his current contract, revoking the offer of a new five-year contract and destroying “his livelihood based upon misinformation” and a “misapplication of the county’s own ordinance and regulations.”
The Board of Commissioners voted to give Durden’s Lawn a 5-year contract on Feb. 5, 2013. After that vote, reports surfaced that Durden did not have an active county business license. Later reports also showed Durden had operated without a business license from 2002 to 2006.
Durden said he operated out of his house and didn’t know he needed a license from 2002 to 2006. Regarding not having a valid business license or being late getting a business license, Durden has said he viewed March 15, not Dec. 31, as the real deadline, because late penalties are not charged by the county until after that date.
County Manager John Middleton sent Durden a letter dated March 13, informing Durden the county was terminating his contract “for cause.” Citing a section of the contract between Durden and the county, the letter states the “termination for cause is based on the fact that Durden’s Lawn Service, by not consistently maintaining a valid business license, ‘persistently disregards laws, ordinance, rules, regulation or orders of any public authority having jurisdiction.’”
In the notice, Strauss challenges Newton County’s ability to even require business licenses or charge occupational taxes and also claims slander and libel, which cost Durden his main business account and notes Durden “is in the process now of losing his home and everything he owns.”