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Little Rock City Hall goes to court on judges' vacation pay claims

Posted: 13 Jan 2019 02:00 PM PST

To add to a pending question about whether former Mayor Mark Stodola is entitled to $173,000 for more for unused leave time during 12 years as mayor, City Attorney Tom Carpenter last week asked circuit court whether two current and one former city district court judges are entitled to pay for unused leave time from the  period before their offices became full state judgeships, which carry no pay accrual. The judges are seeking less than when the Arkansas Blog first reported the dispute.

Sometime this year, the City Board must decide how much Stodola should be paid for his claim that he, like City Manager Bruce Moore is able to accrue pay for unused vacation and sick days. No other elected official in Arkansas has such a benefit. The pay is considered the full compensation for the job (plus retirement benefits, health insurance in many cases and perks such as a car or car allowance.) But there's a similar claim concerning city judges.

We first reported in 2016 that Traffic Judge Vic Fleming, Environmental Court Judge Mark Leverett and former Criminal Court Judge Alice Lightle were seeking $237,000 in payment for leave time they said they accrued before their judgeships were fully added to the state system Jan. 1, 2017. Their pay had always been set by the state legislature but they were referred to in law as city employees and the city paid the salaries. Carpenter argued then and now that payments to them were limited by the statutory pay level, which they received. He said the city had no authority on jurisdiction or on who could fill the seats. He said any past such payments to former officials were in error.

In the case of the judges, there's been some division among city board members on making the payment. The initial claim was budgeted, but withdrawn from consideration at a sensitive time, with city employees facing loss of pay raises and possible furloughs.

The dispute has lingered without resolution. Now it has been tossed to Judge Alice Gray's court in the form of a request for a declaratory judgment.

Efforts have been made to settle the dispute out of court, which might explain why the amount now being sought by the judges is significantly less than first reported. These are now the payments being sought by the three:

* jFleming, $45,641

* Lightle, who left the bench and lives in Colorado, $21,288

* Leverett, who was allowed a part-time law practice during the time he's claiming unused leave time, $11,509.

All the claims represent combinations of unused vacation and sick days.

The city's argument against payment is here.

The city again enters a year where many employees will not receive a pay raise beyond step increases if entitled. The City Board also soon must decide how much to pay Stodola for accrued time he claims. It recently voted to increase his pension substantially, by placing him in a pension plan he'd not joined that will give him $80,000 a year plus a COLA for life. He also was allowed to keep nearly $200,000 he'd contributed to a different city pension plan.

The bloody toll of a Texas surgeon shows why Arkansas must continue to oppose 'tort reform'

Posted: 13 Jan 2019 07:27 AM PST

Breathtaking reporting by Pro Publica tells the story of a butcher of a neurosurgeon in Texas who damaged or killed so many patients it led to a groundbreaking criminal prosecution. Thanks to Texas' "tort reform" law to limit damages in malpractice cases, civil court restitution was limited if available at all to the  patients and families. Save this article for the next time Chamber of Commerce boss Randy Zook, the medical and nursing home lobbies and others try again to make Arkansas a legal safe haven for butcher doctors and negligent nursing homes.

Christopher Duntsch, now in prison, operated on 37 perople during two years in practice in Dallas. 33 were injured, many grievously. Two died. The quality of his work and his apparent abuse of drugs were no secret, but the butchery continued. Why?

Neurosurgeons are worth millions in revenue for hospitals, so Duntsch was able to get operating privileges at a string of Dallas-area institutions. Once his ineptitude became clear, most chose to spare themselves the hassle and legal exposure of firing him outright and instead let him resign, reputation intact.

At least two facilities that quietly dumped Duntsch failed to report him to a database run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that's supposed to act as a clearinghouse for information on problem practitioners, warning potential employers about their histories.
This passage, after all the horrors of the story, is extremely relevant to Arkansas, where the Supreme Court recently disqualified a ballot measure that would have given Arkansas Texas-style limits on civil lawsuits through caps on non-economic damages and legal fees and legislative control of court rules.

For some of his patients, the criminal case offered a last chance at justice they couldn't get through the civil courts.

Since Texas capped damages in medical malpractice lawsuits, limiting the amount plaintiffs can be awarded for pain and suffering in most cases to $250,000, the number of suits filed and amounts paid out have plummeted.

The suits that go forward often ride on economic damages, such as lost earning power, which the law does not limit in non-death cases. But many of Duntsch's patients were disabled when they came to him, or older, or had lower incomes. Some had pain that was hard to economically quantify. Despite having clear-cut claims and serious, irreversible injuries, three patients I talked to said they had trouble finding attorneys to take their cases.

"It is not worth an attorney's time and energy to take on a malpractice case in the state of Texas," Morguloff said.

Ultimately, at least 19 of Duntsch's patients or their survivors obtained settlements, but 14 of them were represented by Van Wey, who said she's taken them on more out of a sense of outrage than out of any financial upside.

Morguloff was told no so often, he was surprised when attorney Mike Lyons finally took his case. He received a confidential settlement but said, "It wasn't much." He took more solace from the criminal case.

"To get this guy off the streets so nobody else got hurt again was important," he said. "The public needed to know that there was a monster out there."

Atheists in court Tuesday to challenge Jason Rapert for blocking criticism on social media

Posted: 13 Jan 2019 07:05 AM PST

The American Atheists organization and individual plaintiffs will be in federal court in Little Rock Tuesday to seek a temporary restraining order against Sen. Jason Rapert for blocking criticism in comments on his Facebook and Twitter pages.

The original suit against Rapert was dismissed at the request of plaintiffs to correct a technical glitch, which had led to some crowing  last week by Rapert, but it was soon refiled by Philip Kaplan and Bonnie Johnson of the Williams and Anderson firm for the plaintiffs and is scheduled for a hearing at 9 a.m. before Judge Kristine Baker. Said the motion

Plaintiffs request that the Court immediately issue a TRO so that plaintiffs and other Facebook and Twitter users, including Senator Rapert's constituents, are not unconstitutionally blocked from full participation in matters before the 92nd Arkansas General Assembly, which convenes on January 14, 2019.

"The loss of First Amendment freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury."  Plaintiffs already have suffered irreparable injury due to the actions of Senator Rapert and denial of their request for a TRO would compound that harm.
Taxpayers are paying the cost of defending Rapert's disdain for the First Amendment through the legal representation of the attorney general.

Here's the brief in support of the motion for a restraining order.

Social media blocking by politicians is a growing issue around the country and has produced some decisions adverse to Rapert's belief that he need not endure criticism. But there's no definitive appellate ruling yet.

Rapert, of course, doesn't only block atheists. Plenty of practicing Christians and those of other stripes have been exiled by the bully of Bigelow. But the atheists' lawsuit says their beliefs are part of the reason Rapert has blocked them.

The proceeding Tuesday will determine whether Rapert must open is forums pending trial of the case on the merits, though issuance of a preliminary injunction would indicate some likelihood of success.

Tom Cotton cornered at Coon Supper on shutdown

Posted: 13 Jan 2019 06:40 AM PST

On Twitter last night Ethan Williams, a Young Democrat, said he drove to Gillett and paid $25 to attend the annual Coon Supper so he could ask Sen. Tom Cotton to reopen the government. Sorry, Cotton seems to have said. Trump calls the shots.
Think for a minute about government by and for Trump. Think if he can add a condition to anything that passes through Congress. Consider that the whole of government and American life can be controlled by a single issue of importance to a single despot. That's where we are. And none of the Arkansas Republicans in Congress have the backbone to resist.

BTW: Williams is worth a follow on Twitter. Particularly if you are not a fan of Republican Rep. Rick Crawford.

The open line, with another party invite

Posted: 12 Jan 2019 02:47 PM PST

Here's the open line. Also I have another party invite to pass along to the public. Since all the legislature is invited, surely the public won't be stopped at the door. Also about Leslie Rutledge's party invite:

Legislators drove a truck-wide hole through efforts to limit freebie wining and dining for public officials by saying any Big Swill events to which all members are invited don't run afoul of so-called ethics rules. (I do wonder how Rutledge gets host status if a PAC is paying for the event. Doesn't that amount to an in-kind gift to her?)

No matter. There is the ethics mulligan rule created by the felonious Jon Woods to cure any ethical hiccups.

In case you're wondering about the Arkansas First and Finest PAC: It was started by Rutledge's daddy Keith to hoover up corporate cash for worthy causes (his daughter's campaign, for example.) According to the highly unreliable secretary of state website, tobacco companies have accounted for $10,000 of the $19,000 the PAC has picked up this year. So it's probably OK if you mosey out to the veranda during Rutledge's party and light up.

And speaking of the inauguration:

I'm sorry to inform you that the black tie ball Tuesday night to kick off Gov. Asa Hutchinson's second term is sold out. But if you want photos of lobbyists and other celebrities, you can snap photos outside the Statehouse Convention Center Tuesday night.

There ARE still $20 tickets available for the casual "Red, White and 'Cue" party Monday night at the Museum of Discovery. It's from 7 to 9 p.m. and a trolley bus will deliver revelers from Rutledge's cocktail party and other downtown hotels if the mean streets of Little Rock seem too daunting.