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Sneyd ordered to answer questions in lawsuit

During an April 13 telephone hearing, Judge Walter Kurtz ordered Clerk and Master Brenda Sneyd to answer questions about the amount of time she works as special commissioner, but refrained from making a final decision on whether the county has to literally pay the price to be sued.
The hearing was scheduled to discuss two preliminary motions in the lawsuit Sneyd has filed against Washington County for a 10 percent pay increase.
The first motion, filed by the county, objects to Sneyd’s request for her attorney’s fees to be paid by the county through the clerk and master office.
“She’s free to employ you, it’s whether government funds can be used for payment,” Kurtz told attorney Arthur Fowler, who said he has not billed Sneyd for any of his time.
Fowler claimed not allowing payment to come from the clerk and master’s office would have a “chilling effect” on other office holders who believe they are being treated unfairly but don’t have the financial means to hire a lawyer.
Erick Herrin, counsel for Washington County, said there is no basis for Sneyd to use public funds to pay attorney fees.
He said Sneyd is attempting to use a “scorched-earth” approach to litigation, which would put the county in the position of choosing between paying her $7,386.50 more per year, or covering the full cost of two attorneys in a case that may go to a jury trial.
“I don’t think the court can ignore this is a case asking for a personal salary increase,” Herrin said. “We can’t have every office holder hiring counsel at the public’s expense when they’re miffed.”
Herrin also said asking for approval to pay for counsel during the preliminary-motions stage gives a very serious start to the proceedings.
“Knowing it is paying both sides may not even justify the county’s having its day in court,” he said.
Kurtz agreed.
“It’s very unusual to have funds approved on the front end,” he said. “Will the clerk and master’s office pick up the fee even if she loses?”
Kurtz said he will provide a notice in writing within 10 days on whether Fowler can be paid with public funds.
Sneyd is demanding a 10 percent pay supplement to her salary of $73,866. In addition to her salary, she earned $42,487 last year through her duties as a special commissioner, a position she was appointed to by Chancellor Richard Johnson.
As special commissioner, Sneyd can be designated by attorneys or families in probate cases to sell real estate. By law, she receives 5 percent commission for every property she sells.
However, Sneyd feels her base salary should be raised to the same level as Circuit Court Clerk Karen Guinn, who serves the Sessions and Chancery courts and received a supplement in 2005 for operating in more than one court.
That same year, the duties of the clerk of the probate court were transferred from the Washington County Clerk’s Office to the Office of the Clerk and Master, making Sneyd also responsible for more than one court. Her lawsuit requires compensation going back to 2006.
Herrin said the pivotal issue is the governing board’s discretion described in the statute regarding pay supplements.
“Washington County, as the governing body, may choose to award a supplement. It is not required to do so,” he said.
The second motion is an effort to force Sneyd to respond to the request for admissions and sanctions. Herrin filed the request in October 2010 asking Sneyd to respond to a list of questions, including the amount of time she uses in her role as special commissioner during regular county work hours, how much of other county employees’ time she uses, and how the county facilities are being used to generate private income.
Fowler objected to all the questions.
“The statute says the 10 percent pay supplement over and above the salary is for the extra time spent,” Herrin said. “If she’s earning over $42,000 and her associates are assisting with special commissioner duties, then she’s not working full-time as clerk and master.”
Fowler said serving as special commissioner is part of the duties of the clerk and master for Sneyd, and while she does receive a commission, the work is part of her job.
Kurtz ordered Sneyd to answer three of the questions while sustaining the other objections.
The three questions Sneyd is ordered by the judge to answer are:
1. Do you engage in special work as a commissioner where you derive personal income?
2. What are the amount of fees you earn as a special commissioner?
3. Do you engage in acts as a special commissioner during the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday?
Kurtz said there did not seem to be any contested facts and gave both sides 45 days to file dispositive motions. Herrin said he is prepared to file a motion to dismiss.
A hearing was scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 16, in Jonesborough.