Jefferson County has lost a federal lawsuit for failing to answer the complaint.
Earlier this month, former county employee John Powell was awarded $16,120 for lost wages and $4,030 for pain and suffering in his suit against Jefferson County and former County Judges Henry “Hank” Wilkins IV and Booker Clemons.
Clemons was named county judge in March 2018, after Wilkins resigned. (Wilkins later pleaded guilty to conspiring to accept more than $80,000 in bribes and still is awaiting sentencing.)
Powell, who is white, was injured while working as an equipment operator for the county in 2015. The neck injury prevented him from working for more than a year, but he eventually returned to work as a mechanic.
In March 2018, he was placed on administrative leave “for no reason” and fired a month later, according to the lawsuit filed in December 2018 by attorney Luther Oneal Sutter of Sutter & Gillham. Powell said he was terminated because of his disability, request for accommodation and race.
Gerald Robinson was sworn in as Jefferson County judge on Jan. 1, 2019, and served with Powell’s suit the same day. Wilkins and Clemons were also served, but no one bothered to answer it, as the case sat for more than a year with no docket entries.
In April, Powell asked for a default judgment because no one answered the complaint.
Robinson said he believed that his predecessors, Wilkins and Clemons, would defend the lawsuit, “given that the facts which led rise to the suit occurred during their terms as County Judge,” according to a pleading by the county’s attorney, C. Burt Newell of Hot Springs.
But they didn’t, so U.S. District Judge Brian S. Miller entered a judgment in favor of Powell in May. The hearing for damages was held Nov. 5.
And the financial hit to the county isn’t over. Miller also will allow Sutter to file a motion for attorney’s fees and costs. Sutter said in a motion that he expects to have that filed by Dec. 18.
Newell told Whispers the case was “unfortunate.” Sutter didn’t return a call for comment.