CHIPLEY - The First Amendment case that rocked the local courthouse has ended with an $85,000 settlement agreement to local attorney Michelle Jordan.
The agreement was reached a day ahead of a bench trial scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 5. The final resolution requires Washington County Clerk of Court Lora Bell, in both her individual and capacity of Clerk of the Circuit Court and Comptroller, to pay Jordan the settlement sum.
"As to the final judgment, we are very pleased with the outcome in this matter," Tiffany R. Cruz, of the Law Offices of Friedman & Abrahamsen out of Tallahassee, wrote in a statement Thursday. "Our Constitution protects the rights of citizens to have and express information about the government, whether the government agrees with that information or not. To allow the government to violate those clearly established rights without challenge would lead to tyranny. I am proud of Ms. Blankenship Jordan for pursuing this case to ensure that government officials are held accountable."
A lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court late last year alleged the Washington County Clerk of Court’s Office were in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments by deleting comments and blocking access to the office’s Facebook page, which the clerk’s office suspended in October 2016.
According to agreement, Bell or her insurer will pay the sum to the Friedman & Abrahamsen trust account within 20 days of the date of receipt of the executed original release. Both Jordan and Bell will bear their own attorneys' court fees.
Although Bell's attorney Jason Taylor, of The Krizner Group, had planned to appeal U.S. District Judge the Hon. Robert L. Hinkle's Aug. 24 pretrial ruling for a summary judgment for Jordan and denied Bell qualified immunity, Bells legal team has since decided the settlement is a more appropriate response.
"After careful consideration of the issues related to the Court’s order, as well as the possibility that an appeal would not produce a different result, we decided not to seek review of the trial court’s determination," Bell wrote in a statement Thursday. "As expressed before, the issues led us to seek a judicial decision on what remains a less than clear situation. However, if unsuccessful, an appeal would have resulted in a significantly greater award of attorneys’ fees to the Plaintiff and her attorney, without a significant change in the alleged damages."
"As it stands, the settlement itself primarily represents the attorneys’ fees to which Plaintiff’s attorney would likely be entitled, based on the representations of the Plaintiff and her counsel. Rather than risk the possibility of any further expense, and with the guidance of our counsel and carrier, we considered the best option to be to reach a resolution, put this matter fully behind us and continue to keep our focus on serving the citizens of Washington County."