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County accused of ‘judge shopping’ in Sneyd suit

Washington County was accused of “judge shopping” during the March 1 hearing in Greeneville Chancery Court for its first motion in the case against Clerk and Master Brenda Sneyd.
Attorney Erick Herrin, of Herrin, Booze and McPeak in Johnson City, filed a motion on Jan. 14 for the recusal of Chancellor Thomas R. Frierson II, the judge assigned to the lawsuit initiated by Sneyd, who is suing the county for a 10 percent pay increase.
Sneyd contends the work she does is equal that of her counterpart in Circuit Court, Karen Guinn, and her salary should be raised to the same level.
The case is being heard in Greene County because Sneyd’s immediate supervisor, Chancellor Richard Johnson, appointed her clerk and master.
“Johnson recused himself, but did not see fit to include our proviso requesting a judge who does not appoint the clerk and master,” Herrin said in his address to Frierson.
“This (proviso) was not an afterthought, it was a forethought,” Herrin said.
“Your Honor, they’re judge shopping, and this should not be allowed,” said Sneyd’s counsel, Arthur M. Fowler, of Fowler & Fowler in Johnson City.
“They want a judge who won’t allow the clerk and master to serve as special commissioner, and it would probably be impossible to find one,” he said.
Herrin denied judge shopping. “We’re simply asking for a judge who has not been involved in appointing clerks as special commissioners because we believe it would bring neutrality to the case,” he said.
The matter at hand is Sneyd’s demand for a 10 percent pay supplement to her salary of $73,866 because she operates more than one court and believes her salary should be equal to Guinn’s.
“Washington County’s governing body has the authority to determine if the supplement is awarded,” Herrin said. “If we need to prove why, we will prove she (Sneyd) earned an additional $42,487 last year as a special commissioner.”
As special commissioner, Sneyd can be designated by the attorneys or families in probate cases to sell the real estate of deceased individuals. By law, she receives a 5 percent commission for every property she sells.
Herrin said Sneyd spends her time and that of the employees she supervises during regular office hours, in addition to using county facilities, to generate private income.
“I’m not saying it’s illegal, it’s not. That’s a question for another day, but it’s not part of this lawsuit,” he said.
According to Herrin, there is already a question from the public as to how private fees are being generated through a public job.
“There is also a public understanding that it is with the permission of the judge that these private funds are earned, and this casts the judicial system in a negative light,” Herrin said.
“The appearance of bias by the judge (in the case against Sneyd) is as harmful to the judicial system as actual bias, and could be seen as being complicit in helping generate private income through a public office.”
According to Fowler, the funds Sneyd earns as special commissioner are not private funds.
“One of the duties of the clerk and master is to conduct the job of special commissioner, and she is allowed to receive the supplemental fees,” he said.
Herrin pointed out that Sneyd is required to issue a 1099, which indicates the fees are coming directly to her rather than the county coffers.
Fowler said Sneyd is being treated disparagingly, and that the Circuit Court clerk has also received special fees.
Frierson said he will consider the motion and issue a written opinion. When the Herald & Tribune went to press on March 7, the opinion had not been received.
“There’s really only one issue here, and it’s special fees, and the Circuit Court clerk earns them,” Sneyd said after the hearing.
The request for Frierson’s recusal is the first in a series of three preliminary motions.
The second is a motion to compel Sneyd to respond to the request for admissions and sanctions. Herrin said Sneyd has not provided the amount of time she uses in her job as special commissioner during regular hours, how much of other county employees’ time she uses, and how the county facilities are being used to generate private funds.
The third motion is a response to Sneyd’s request to have her legal counsel fees paid by the Washington County Clerk and Master’s office.