WINNSBORO — Sixth Circuit Court Judge Knox McMahon recently dismissed a civil lawsuit against three Fairfield County Council members.
The dismissal puts an end to the effort of a group of 16 citizens that included State Rep. Mary Gail Douglas to recover monies paid by taxpayers. These specific funds were paid in lieu of supplemental health insurance and tuition reimbursements to the three county council members.
On Jan. 30, McMahon ordered that the complaints were dismissed because of prejudice. The ruling effectively relieves Mary Lynn Kinley (District 6), David Ferguson (District 5) and Mikel Trapp (District 3) from any wrongdoing as it relates to the civil case.
A hearing was held on the motion Jan. 9 in Winnsboro, when parties agreed that the legal issues presented by the three cases were the same and that a ruling on one would apply to all three defendants.
Plaintiffs alleged that the defendants (county council) were improperly receiving funds from Fairfield County. The plaintiffs were relying on the S.C. Attorney General’s opinion on July 8, 2013, which stated that certain types of disbursements to county council members including disbursements for costs associated with health insurance premiums was unconstitutional.
Douglas said she was dissatisfied with the court’s ruling.
“I, along with the other plaintiffs, have done all we can do to make this situation right,” she stated. “We took it to the court system. The court system has spoken and I respect that decision.”
Defendant attorneys John Carrol Moylan III and Wade Stackhouse Kolb III contended that the plaintiffs lacked the standing to pursue their claims.
Using the Supreme Court decision in Freemantle v. Preston from 2012, Moylan and Kolb pointed out that the plaintiff’s attempt to claim standing due to his status as a taxpayer was denied.
The court explained “a taxpayer lacks constitutional standing when he suffers in some indefinite way in common with people generally.”
Under the facts of Preston, the Supreme Court concluded with respect to the plaintiff taxpayer that his injury, if any, “is common to all citizens and taxpayers and that feature of commonality defeats the constitutional requirement of a concrete and particularized injury.”
Judge McMahon wrote that the same reasoning applies here: “the alleged injury plaintiffs complain of — misuse of public funds — (if it occurred and if it is an injury) is common to all citizens and taxpayers of Fairfield County. The plaintiffs cannot show that they have suffered any concrete and particularized injury.”
McMahon also noted that at most the plaintiffs have suffered in some indefinite way that is common with all people in Fairfield County and that therefore under the reasoning of Preston, the plaintiffs lack constitutional standing to bring their claims to action.
It was also cited that the plaintiffs could not resort to the “public importance exception” as grounds for standing to pursue their claims, because the plaintiffs are not seeking conjunctive relief but rather monetary relief.
McMahon wrote that “the personnel policy of Fairfield County with respect to past health care disbursements made to county council members is not an issue of public importance as to require its resolution for future guidance.”
Fairfield County Council discontinued the practice of supplemental health insurance and funds expended for tuition reimbursement after the S.C. Attorney General made his opinion in July 2013.
Even if the plaintiffs could demonstrate standing, however, dismissal would still be warranted upon other grounds McMahon wrote.
“Plaintiffs claims fail as a matter of law because plaintiffs have not alleged and cannot allege the elements for the two claims they assert. As an initial matter, South Carolina law does not recognize the plaintiffs first claim.”
With that basis alone, McMahon explained that the dismissal of the claim is warranted. He also stated that the plaintiffs had neither the title or the right to possess the public funds in question, which belonged to Fairfield County.
“Moreover, defendants had no obligation to deliver the funds to the plaintiffs and in fact, the law would have prevented them from doing so,” McMahon wrote.
The civil lawsuit against Kinley, Ferguson and Trapp came after the S.C. Attorney General issued the opinion that Fairfield County’s practice that cash payouts for supplemental health insurance and tuition reimbursement was unconstitutional.
For the last four years, all three council members were paid $475 per month to cover their own health insurance.
Douglas believes the defendants found a loophole.
“The decision rendered was that three county council members skated on a technicality,” she stated. “While the court system forgave them on a technicality, the taxpayers in our county will not be so forgiving. It was wrong for them to accept that money and they know it. Those who skated on this technicality will have to answer to the taxpayers in Fairfield County. As disappointing as this is, we will move on.”