Inmate’s attorney, law department trade written blows in beating lawsuit

flack-louis3-e1424728118227With the taxpayer meter running, opposing attorneys in the case of a videotaped beating of a mentally ill Knox County jail inmate are bloodying each other in the battle over legal fees.

Taxpayers have already forked out $200,000 for the actions of Knox County Sheriff’s Office employees in the November 2014 beating of inmate Louis Flack Jr.

But the tab for taxpayers in what the Knox County Law Director’s Office admitted was a violation of Flack’s civil rights is still running with a legal fight between Flack’s attorney, Lance Baker, and Deputy Law Director David Wigler over how much Baker and others on Flack’s legal team should receive for their work on the case.

In recent filings in U.S. District Court, the battle has turned ugly.

“What a gift for a young lawyer!” Wigler wrote in suggesting Baker, his paralegal and two assisting attorneys are charging “exorbitant” fees for what Wigler contends was a slam­dunk case.

Baker, in turn, accuses Wigler and the KCSO of adding to the expense of the case by playing hide­and­seek with documents before a settlement was reached and of “stonewalling, disinformation, misrepresentation, feigned ignorance, and a complete lack of cooperation” by Wigler after a deal was struck.

Baker seeks roughly $114,000 in legal fees and expenses for himself and his team.

Video showed Flack, clearly identified as mentally ill by the jumpsuit assigned him, was in the throes of a psychotic break when KCSO staffers stormed his cell, threw him facedown on the concrete floor and beat and kicked him even after he was fully restrained. More abuse of Flack was captured on video after the assault, with Cpl. David Sparkes grabbing Flack by his hair and pulling his head up as a nurse treated Flack, even though the inmate was not struggling with the nurse and still remained in a psychotic state.

Baker had been appointed to represent Flack in Knox County General Sessions Court in a domestic assault case, which was later dropped when — nearly three months after the incident — the video surfaced and Sheriff Jimmy “J.J.” Jones was forced to publicly acknowledge the beating. Jones fired Deputy Nicholas Breeden, who can be seen on video punching Flack after he was restrained, suspended Sparkes for five days and suspended jailer Christopher Fustos, who kicked and kneed the restrained inmate, for two days. Breeden faces trial on official misconduct and assault charges in the Flack incident.

Baker learned of the video of his client via WBIR­TV, which first aired it in January 2015. Records show he agreed to pursue a lawsuit on behalf of Flack under what’s known as a contingency arrangement in which the lawyer would not be paid for time and expenses unless Flack won money. Wigler contends the video all but forced the county to admit wrongdoing, so there was little legal fight when Baker filed the civil­rights lawsuit in November 2015.

“Indeed, Knox County never denied liability,” he wrote.

But Baker contends the KCSO refused to turn over public records and did not disclose a second video that was longer than the one aired publicly, far more detailed and included audio when Baker was trying to investigate the incident in anticipation of filing a lawsuit. He said in his motion that added to his work and his bill for it.

Knox County offered Flack $100,000 soon after the lawsuit was filed. Baker rejected that. Four months later, in March, the county offered $200,000 for Flack. Baker accepted it. But the issue of legal fees remained.

With the ink still wet on the settlement, another fight broke out between Wigler and Baker over exactly what had been agreed to in terms of legal fees, including whether Baker should take a financial hit for releasing that second video to the media while the lawsuit was pending.

“What transpired over the next 3 months (was) a series of actions that included stonewalling, disinformation, misrepresentation, feigned ignorance and a complete lack of cooperation by the Law Director’s Office (that) threatened to unravel the settlement,” Baker wrote.

Wigler denies that and says Baker was stalling so Knox County would drop its demands for sanctions over the release of the second video and should not be allowed to bill taxpayers for that.

“As it turned out, Mr. Baker was essentially holding up his client’s settlement for over three months to avoid responding to the pending motion for sanctions,” Wigler wrote.

Wigler said Knox County has offered Baker $35,000 in legal fees and expenses.

A judge will decide how much taxpayers should pay for Flack’s legal representation. Taxpayers also will have to pay for a private attorney the law department hired to represent the individual officers, except Breeden. A cost for that has not been made public yet.

Jamie Satterfield, Knoxville News Sentinel, September, 5, 2016.

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