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Judge's award of fees in jail mail suit under appeal

Sheriff: Insurance company for county made decision


An appeal of Judge Michael Simon’s decision last month ordering Columbia County to pay more than $802,000 in legal fees over a lawsuit it lost was filed in federal district court Tuesday, April 8.

The defendants in the suit — Columbia County, the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office and Sheriff Jeff Dickerson — are seeking to overturn Simon’s award of fees to Prison Legal News, a Florida-based publication that sued the county and sheriff after its print materials were not delivered to inmates at the Columbia County Jail.

Dickerson said the decision to appeal was up to Citycounty Insurance Services, through which Columbia County is insured.

Simon last year found the jail policy restricting mail correspondence to and from inmates to postcards, as well as a practice of preventing the delivery of magazines and newspapers to inmates that Dickerson said he halted, to be unconstitutional.

County officials have said they expect insurance to cover the legal fees the county was ordered to pay. But they panned the order and accused Prison Legal News and its attorneys of deliberately running up legal fees.

“I’m not going to question the judge’s ruling,” Dickerson said Wednesday, April 16. “What I question is how the attorneys can ask for so much money.”

Dickerson said he believes the insurance company opted to appeal for similar reasons.

“It’s got to be because they think those fees were outrageous, just like I do,” said Dickerson. “I’m just amazed that they can get that kind of money.”

Simon became the first judge in the United States to strike down a postcard-only jail mail policy after trial last April, and the amount in legal fees he ordered Columbia County to pay March 24 is the largest award ever granted in such a case, according to Alex Friedmann, managing editor of Prison Legal News.

Although Dickerson said he ordered the jail to allow publications like Prison Legal News to be delivered to inmates after the lawsuit was filed in January 2012, Friedmann said Prison Legal News — which provides coverage of legal issues involving jails and prisons around the country — sought a court order to protect inmates’ rights.

“These kind of policies can come and go,” Friedmann said. “Sheriffs come and go.”

While county officials are grumbling about the amount of legal fees in the suit, with Dickerson suggesting Wednesday that they are out of proportion to the $15,000 that Columbia County previously agreed to pay Prison Legal News in damages, Friedmann said they are the price of the policy.

“In this case, it took a long time and it cost the county a lot of money, but that is because they instated an unconstitutional policy to begin with,” Friedmann said of the lawsuit.

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