CINCINNATI — The Village of Morrow may be forced to pay $1.1 million in damages and legal fees after a jury ruled that this small Warren County community unlawfully fired a maintenance worker and intentionally inflicted "atrocious" and "utterly intolerable" emotional distress on him.
A jury sided with former public works employee Timothy Erwin on May 7 after a week-long trial in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati, awarding him $781,500 in back pay, future wages and damages. Erwin is also entitled to attorney’s fees, which are more than $300,000.
Large jury verdicts are rare in this federal court district of normally conservative Southwest Ohio, which pools residents from 10 counties stretching to Scioto and Lawrence.
“Apparently the jury saw what they considered to be very egregious conduct. Which begs the question: If the evidence was going to appear so egregious, why did they not settle this case sooner?” asked attorney Matt Miller-Novak, who frequently sues local municipalities for employment and Open Meetings Act violations but has no ties to this case.
“They probably could have saved the taxpayer some money,” Miller-Novak added.
The Village of Morrow’s own lawyers had advised council members to approve a $200,000 mediated settlement with Erwin that would have avoided trial, court filings show. And Erwin said he was willing to take the lower settlement.
But Morrow Village Council voted against the settlement, court filings show.
Now the village, which has 2,000 residents, is likely on the hook for nearly six times that amount.
“You have to treat a human being with dignity, respect, and you have to follow the law. If you don’t want to do that, you’re going to get a verdict against you,” said Erwin’s lawyer, Jim Whitaker.
Now attorneys for the Village of Morrow are asking U.S. District Court Judge Mike Barrett to overturn the verdict, give them more time to pay damages, reduce the damage award or give them a new trial.
All six Morrow Village Council members, Mayor York Bryant, Village Administrator Caroline Whitacre, and village lawyers did not respond to several requests from WCPO asking for comment for this story, including a specific question about whether the village had enough money to pay the jury award.
Whitaker is worried that the village doesn’t have the money to pay. The village’s attorneys say that $1.7 million has been put aside for this case, according to court filings.
But Whitaker said he doubts the village really has that money or will voluntarily pay it to his client.
“At trial there was significant testimony that the current mayor has an extremely adversarial position against the plaintiff (Erwin)," Whitaker wrote in a recent court filing. "It would be a giant leap to ever presume that any money set aside, even if upheld on appeal, would be released and paid. It should also be noted that the Village of Morrow indicated that their financial situation was such that the Village could not afford to pay a temporary worker to perform (Erwin’s) job.”
This case shows how a small-town political fight, and deep grudges within a close-knit community, can spiral into a federal jury verdict that could have significant financial ramifications for residents.
“Obviously the money has to come from somewhere in the budget,” Miller-Novak said. “The one thing that all local municipalities have in common is they don’t really have any money to waste … If you look at their budgets, 100 percent of them are spent on public safety, police, fire, roads, things like that so, guess where that money has to come from?”
Morrow’s attorneys claim the jury made a mistake when it awarded Erwin $330,000 in damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress, and filed a motion asking the judge to cut the dollar amount.
But all six jurors ruled that conduct by Morrow officials toward Erwin was “so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community."
“That's really what he was dealing with, a bunch of bullies,” Whitaker said.
Erwin, who is a lifelong resident of Morrow, got a job with the Village public works department in 2003 mowing grass, plowing snow, fixing water leaks and picking up trash.
“I had planned on retiring there," Erwin said. "I really enjoyed the job, the people."
But that changed in 2012 when Erwin said a political dispute between his brother, Michael Erwin, who was mayor at the time, and others at the village got ugly.
Erwin said former council member Bruce Miller, who was his former co-worker at the public works department, and former council member Bill Thompson began harassing him, in part, to get back at his brother. He said they used billboards and social media posts to make fun of him publicly.
“The large signs or billboards constructed by a member of the Village Council (Bill Thompson) making fun of plaintiff and suggesting he was ‘milking’ the village, which signs were left out at Thompson’s house visible to passers-by, and his truck parked in front of monthly village council meetings for all to see,” according to Whitaker’s court filing.
Meanwhile, Erwin said that Bruce Miller stalked and followed him, after blaming him for the loss of his job at public works and the termination of his brother, Bob Miller, from his job as zoning inspector after he was charged with stealing water from the village by operating an illegal water tap, according to court filings.
“He (Bruce Miller) would follow me everywhere I would go on the village mower … and yelled some obscenities at me. He would flip me off and different types of gestures,” Erwin said. “He would park out in front of my house at 6 a.m.”
In February 2013, Erwin got a civil stalking protection order against Bruce Miller, which was violated at least once and led to Miller’s conviction of a reduced charge of disorderly conduct in 2014, according to court filings.
But testimony at trial showed that the Morrow police chief failed to enforce the civil protection order and the Morrow mayor refused to discipline the police chief for not doing so, according to Whitaker’s court filings.
In July 2014, Miller’s daughter filed a menacing complaint against Erwin, which led to his arrest. The charge was later dropped, according to court filings, but not before Erwin said he was publicly humiliated.
After years of the harassment, Erwin said, a doctor diagnosed him with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in September 2014 and he took a leave of absence from work due to high anxiety, depression, nightmares, loss of appetite and sleeplessness.
“Tim was really emotionally devastated by this," Whitaker said. "It really kind of destroyed his life. He lost his job, he lost his retirement, he lost his benefits.”
Erwin took a leave of absence from work, using his accumulated sick leave, to recover from the PTSD.
As Erwin was preparing to return to work months later, he got a letter from then Village Administrator Rod Smith in March 2015 firing him, “at the direction of village council.” That same day he also received a second letter from Smith giving him his “highest recommendation,” and praising him as prompt, efficient, positive, and courteous.
While Erwin was on administrative leave, the village hired an outside attorney to conduct an independent investigation of his employment. Her December 2014 report concluded that Erwin should remain a village employee and warned that council could open itself up to negative employment action if he were fired, according to court filings.
A few months before Erwin’s case went to trial in May, Erwin found several bullet holes that had struck his home in Morrow. He never saw who fired the gun, but said he has suspicions. He showed the damage to WCPO.
Erwin also said someone from the village plowed snow to block his driveway last winter, as he was recovering from cancer, and that someone stole meat from his storage freezer and pulled out the electrical cord so the remaining meat would rot.
Erwin believes the jury verdict was fair and that he’s entitled to the damages. While local attorneys say it’s rare for a judge to alter a jury’s verdict, Barrett will have the final decision in the coming weeks.
“My dad’s been dead for 31 years. He said be honest and tell the truth and you’ll win all battles in life," Erwin said. "And I believe that."