Clausi, Phillips not aware of Best settlement
WILLIAMSPORT - Vinny Clausi and Merle Phillips said they were unaware the lawsuit filed against them by fired Northumberland County employee Kymberley Best was settled, and both said they wouldn't have agreed to a settlement because they don't believe they did anything wrong.
But the county's liability policy with ACE Westchester Fire Insurance Company allows the firm to settle without the county's consent, something county solicitor Frank Garrigan described as somewhat typical for liability coverage.
Barry Kronthal, of Camp Hill, the attorney who represented the county for ACE, was unavailable for comment Thursday regarding the settlement, but Garrigan said a confidentiality agreement that's part of the settlement will prevent any details from being disclosed.
Reached Thursday afternoon, Best said she couldn't comment.
Notice was filed in federal court in Williamsport Tuesday that Best's lawsuit against the county, Clausi, who is county commissioner chairman, and Phillips, a former commissioner, has been settled with the aid of a mediator. The filing says a mediation conference was held Tuesday.
On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Matthew W. Brann signed the order to dismiss the case without costs and prejudice to either party. The action can be reinstated within 60 days if the settlement is not consummated.
'I don't understand'
Clausi stressed Thursday that the settlement, whatever dollar amount it might involve, will be paid by the insurance company and cost taxpayers nothing. The only cost to the county to have ACE represent it was a $25,000 deductible paid soon after the suit was filed.
Clausi said the notion of a "settlement" suggests he admits to wrongdoing when he says that's not the case.
Phillips agreed with Clausi and was shocked to learn about the settlement through the media.
"There's no way I would agree to settle it because I didn't do anything wrong," Phillips said Thursday. "I didn't even do a deposition."
Best filed the suit in May 2011 claiming wrongful termination and defamation after she was fired March 18 of that year from her dual role as assistant county solicitor and chief clerk. She was paid a $70,762 annually.
She would later file an amended complaint, but five of her initial claims, including due process, equal pay, conspiracy, wrongful termination and state whistleblower violations, were dismissed by Kane in August 2012.
Clausi and Phillips had also filed motions requesting the suit be dismissed, citing immunity as public officials.
On Oct. 27, 2012, Best filed a second amended complaint. Remaining in the suit were free speech claims that allege retaliation and a part of the whistleblower claim that dealt with her reports of deficient air quality in the register and recorder's office in the county courthouse related to mold from a leaking roof and a related danger from a glass dome on the roof.
At the time she filed her lawsuit, Best also filed a 13-point complaint with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC) accusing Clausi of sexual harassment.
The lawsuit and PHRC complaint were in part tied to an incident that occurred 10 days before Best's firing at a meeting in which Clausi acknowledged he "flipped out" on Best. But Clausi said he felt vindicated when state police and the state Office of the Attorney General closed their investigation into the incident without filing any charges.
Garrigan said Thursday he was contacted recently by Kronthal and was told ACE, which has offices nationwide, was going to entertain an offer for settlement. Garrigan said he mentioned that none of the defendants was ready to consent, but he was reminded that the firm did not need the defendants' permission to settle, per terms of the policy.
Garrigan said he received a phone call Tuesday informing him a settlement had been reached.
Clausi and Garrigan said there are other liability policies for various departments or personnel where the county has more leeway. But even where the county has a right to consent to or refuse a settlement, the county takes a chance it can be responsible for financial payouts well beyond the deductible.
"We like the ability to consent, but at the same time, you're rolling the dice every time," Garrigan said. Taxpayers are put at risk for footing the bill should the county lose the case or have to pay part or all of a large settlement.
The settlement of a lawsuit filed by former county prison deputy warden John Conrad and his wife, Lisa, speaks to the differences in policies and settlements. In that case, the settlement amount, $87,500, was disclosed.