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Judge rules for county, Sneyd case dismissed

Senior Judge Walter C. Kurtz granted Washington County’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed the lawsuit filed by Clerk and Master Brenda Sneyd for a 10 percent pay increase.
Kurtz’s order was entered Aug. 31, two weeks after a hearing in Jonesborough.
“The most important part of the ruling is the court recognized that (Sneyd’s) receipt of private income in the form of (special commissioner) fees is permissable for the county commission to consider in using its discretion to give salary increases,” said Erick Herrin, Washington County’s counsel.
“I’m glad he addressed that issue.”
While Herrin said the lawsuit was about the 10 percent increase, those special commissioner fees are something that should be looked at on a larger scale.
“The real solution is to amend the state statute so that public officials cannot serve as special commissioners,” he said.
“This would remove the private income from any public office, which raises questions as to the integrity of the judicial branch.”
According to the order from Kurtz, Sneyd brought the lawsuit contending that Washington County deprived her of a legally mandated pay raise.
While the legislature sets the minimum salaries of court clerks, the statute does give each county some discretion to raise the salary “in the amount of 10 percent of the clerk’s base compensation” if the clerk has additional duties to serve multiple courts.
“There is no question that the clerk and master is also the clerk of the Probate Court, so she is eligible for the 10 percent increase in salary,” Kurtz wrote in his order.
“The issue is whether or not she must be granted the increase if the Circuit Court clerk receives the increase.”
Sneyd filed a complaint Sept. 22, 2010, requesting that an order be entered “granting a salary increase to the clerk and master equal to that of the clerk of Circuit Court” and that the increase be retroactive to 2006.
In his order, Kurtz gives the following reasons the Court must reject the contentions of the plaintiff:
“…Her argument is that if the county exercised the authority to raise the Circuit Court clerk’s salary, then it must grant the pay raise to both clerks. The statute, however, says no such thing. There is nothing in the statute…that mandates that both clerks in the same county must receive the same salary.”
Kurtz also disagrees with Sneyd’s allegation of being treated despairingly, and points out the Circuit Court clerk serves six judges, has more than twice the number of employees as the clerk and master, and has triple the budget.
In addition, “…the clerk and master receives substantial personal income from her duties as special commissioner…”
According to the order, Sneyd’s payment for her duties as special commissioner totaled $142,561 for fiscal years 2006-2010.
“The clerk and master contends that she is being punished for this extra income…The court does not see (the argument) in the same light as the plaintiff,” Kurtz wrote.
“Her appointment as special commissioner is under authority of the chancellor, and she is acting as an agent of the Chancery Court, but still as clerk and master.
“Her derived income is considerable, and it is not irrational for the county legislative body to consider this income in making its decision regarding whether or not to grant the 10 percent raise. The extra income appears to come with the office.”
Sneyd also alleged the failure to grant the 10 percent increase violated separation of powers by allowing the legislative branch to exercise arbitrary power over the judicial branch that Sneyd serves.
“The court thinks not,” Kurtz wrote. “Certainly if the legislature can set the salaries of judges, it can set the salaries of clerks.”
The judge also addressed the question of whether failure to provide a raise violates the inherent powers of the Chancery Court.
According to Kurtz, the court only uses its inherent powers to insure the effective operation of the court system.
“All indications are that the clerk and master’s office of Washington County is operated efficiently and consistent with high standards,” he wrote.
“Therefore, there would be no occasion for the court to exercise its inherent power to interfere with the county’s action in this instance.
“The court has considered all other arguments asserted by the plaintiff and found them to be without merit.”