Previously confidential Ooltewah rape settlement finally unveiled to Hamilton County school board members

Previously confidential Ooltewah rape settlement finally unveiled to Hamilton County school board members

May 16th, 2019 by Meghan Mangrum in Local Regional News

Attorney Scott Bennett speaks during a meeting at the Hamilton County Department of Education on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016.

Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Times Free Press.

Hamilton County school board members finally learned the settlement amount for one of the 2015 Ooltewah High School rape victims this week.

In an email Wednesday night, school board attorney Scott Bennett said "John Doe" received $750,000 as part of a settlement in a civil lawsuit against the Hamilton County Department of Education.

John Doe was one of the four then-minors who said older Ooltewah High School classmates attacked them with pool cues during a December 2015 trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, for a basketball tournament. He and another victim, "Richard Roe," filed civil lawsuits against the district in Chattanooga's U.S. District Court in 2016, and both settled before trial.

But their settlements were sealed, leaving school board members and the public in the dark about the actual amount. That ultimately opened the door to another legal issue after the board's attorneys wouldn't disclose it.

Shortly after John Doe's case settled in the fall of 2018, Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, blasted the school district and its insurer, the Tennessee Risk Management Trust, for not disclosing the amounts.

"I'm pretty upset about the way the school systems continue to hide things from the public when they spend taxpayers' money to settle lawsuits where people did things that were inappropriate," he told the Times Free Press in December.

The district is not directly footing this bill; the insurer is. And Bennett previously said the board had no say in voting on John Doe's settlement or any knowledge about the amount. But it faced a potentially high judgment.

When John Doe initially sued in September 2016, his attorneys, of the Fierberg National Law Group, and Eddie Schmidt of Nashville, did not list a damages amount in the lawsuit. But the Fierberg Group is known nationally for securing high-dollar judgments in cases involving alleged school wrongdoing.

At the time, Gardenhire countered that Hamilton County pays a yearly premium to the insurer for its coverage and that he wanted to try to get legislation passed "so that these kinds of things are not kept from the public."

Eventually, the state's Open Records Counsel, Lee Pope, got involved. In February, he sent top trust officials a letter saying that out-of-court monetary settlements made by board insurers need to be disclosed to the public under Tennessee's open government laws. Pope said the trust is "most likely" a governmental entity or "functional equivalent of a government entity."

Bennett said that he, along with the trust's attorney Charles Purcell, both received a letter from the Attorney General's Office, sent on the senator's behalf, stating its position that the settlement agreement is a public record.

"I understand that Mr. Purcell was able to use the attorney general's position to persuade the Doe attorney to waive the confidentiality agreement," Bennett said in an email Thursday.

Several boards members were unsure why they learned about the settlement this week, but Bennett said there is no pending litigation regarding any alleged open records matter against the board currently.

There is still the issue of Roe's settlement, which has yet to be disclosed.

Gardenhire declined to comment Thursday, and Pope could not be reached.

Staff writer Zack Peterson contributed to this report.

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.


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