June 18, 2014 - "Great victory for Pat Paad."
That's how Flint attorney Tom Pabst summed up U.S. District Judge George Caram Steeh's June 10 order denying the majority of Oxford Village's motion for summary judgment with regard to former Deputy Clerk Marion Patricia Paad's lawsuit against the municipality, Councilwoman Maureen Helmuth and Manager Joe Young.
As a result, all of Paad's claims, with the exception of one, will be allowed to proceed to a jury trial.
"Hallelujah!" Pabst said. "We're over here celebrating."
Village attorney Bob Davis, who is consulting on the case, but is not handling it for the municipality, was more subdued about the order's significance.
"It just says that the village's position, at this point, was not so overwhelmingly in favor of the village that a judge was willing to dismiss a plaintiff's case without going to trial," he said. "What that really means is that the judge found enough stuff – enough fact controversy, enough competing testimony – to go to trial."
Attorney Audrey Forbush, who's with the law firm Plunkett Cooney and is representing all three defendants, did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Forbush was appointed to handle the case by the Michigan Municipal League (MML), which was the village's insurance provider during the time frame in which Paad's claims are set.
On July 17, both sides are expected to meet with Steeh and he'll set the trial date.
"I think it's going to be quick," Pabst said. "It's going to be sooner rather than later. He's a good judge – fast, quick, he wants to get it done."
Pabst is quite confident they will prevail over the village.
"I think they're going to get clobbered," he said. "I think we're going to win. In fact, I boldly predict we're going to win. There's nothing I trust in this country more than juries . . . I think a jury, once it listens to this evidence, I think they're going to rule in Pat's favor."
Davis made it clear that just because most of Paad's case survived summary judgment doesn't mean it's any kind of indicator as to how a jury trial would go.
"It doesn't forecast that at all," he said. "None of this means either side has won . . . All it means, really, is that one claim that we got dismissed is not going to go to trial unless they appeal."
In contrast to Pabst's view, Davis noted getting the opportunity to have a jury trial isn't always a desirable thing, in Davis' opinion.
"A judge reviewing (Paad's claims) in a light most favorable to her has found there's enough questions here to take it to a jury. And I think it's always risky to take a jury of six or a jury of nine and let them decide these cases because they don't always understand the nuances of the law. I think there's a risk in going to a jury," he said.
Late last year, the village filed a motion for summary judgment concerning Paad's lawsuit filed in December 2012.
A summary judgment can be used to avoid unnecessary trials or simplify a trial by dispensing with certain issues or claims beforehand.
In her suit, Paad, who was terminated in March 2011, accuses the village, Helmuth and Young of violating her constitutional rights and malicious prosecution.
Paad claims that "throughout her tenure" with the village, she "raised concerns" involving "improper spending/use of taxpayers' money, and/or volunteers stealing taxpayers' money" to village officials, management and employees.
Because of this, Paad's complaint alleges she found herself facing "false and baseless" charges of embezzlement that "were made to try to cover up (the) defendants' unlawful conduct."
In Steeh's order, all of Paad's claims survived and will move on to a jury trial with the exception of one.
The state claim of malicious prosecution against the village was dismissed by the judge.
"That's the only thing that's gone," Davis said.
However, the state claim of malicious prosecution will stand against Helmuth and Young as will the federal claim of malicious prosecution against all three defendants.
Steeh also let stand Paad's claim that she was retaliated against for exercising her First Amendment rights.
"I think it's outrageous what (the defendants) did," Pabst said. "I'm a Vietnam vet and I fought for the rights that we all enjoy . . . I believe in those rights. And they just stomped on Pat Paad."
As a result of the issues Paad raised regarding allegedly misused and/or stolen tax money and her expressing these concerns to a council member, Pabst said Young and Helmuth "concocted" this "phoney-baloney story" that his client embezzled money from the village.
Paad was accused of stealing more than $3,300 in property tax payments from three village residents in 2006. She was also charged with embezzling almost $600 worth of village police department funds in 2010.
In April 2012, an Oakland County Circuit Court jury found Paad not guilty of five felony counts of embezzlement by a public official over $50. Each count was punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
The accusations concerning the alleged theft of these tax funds were made by Helmuth in January 2011, resulting in Paad's suspension without pay and two months later, her termination.
Helmuth previously testified that after remaining silent about what she knew for four years, she went to Young and admitted she had discovered the alleged embezzlement, loaned Paad money from her own pocket to cover the missing tax funds in early 2007 and didn't report the incident to the village.
At the time all this allegedly occurred, Helmuth was not serving on the elected council. She was employed by the village as its deputy treasurer. She was promoted to treasurer by Young in July 2007.
Pabst doesn't buy this story and he doesn't believe a jury will either.
"Even a drunk wouldn't believe that," Pabst said. "I think they're going to have a hard time selling that (to a jury). And on top of that, Pat Paad's very credible, very credible."
Pabst described the village's story as "a tissue of lies."
"And it's falling apart right in front of everyone's eyes," he said.
Pabst indicated he's ultimately looking prove his client's innocence.
"I intend to clear her name. The only way I can clear her name is through a jury trial," he said. "I think a jury is totally going to clear Pat Paad's name."
"They scapegoated Pat Paad and threw her under bus to misdirect attention away from someone else who took the money," Pabst added. "(The defendants) deserve to get clobbered. Anyone who sits for any length of time and talks to Pat Paad or knows her, knows that she didn't do this. You can't spend 20 minutes with this woman, talking with her, (without realizing) this woman's not a thief."
Pabst noted that one jury previously cleared Paad.
"We've already had a dry run (with) a criminal trial (on) this and that jury, in a New York minute, acquitted Pat," he said.
Pabst anticipates the second jury will reach the same conclusion and be generous when it comes to awarding damages to Paad.
"I think they're going to award a lot of money," he said. "I think it's going to be seven figures. I really do. Hell, if ever there was a case that warranted seven figures, this is it."
Paad is seeking a judgment for lost wages and benefits, past and future; compensatory damages for emotional distress and mental anguish; punitive and exemplary damages "commensurate with the wrongs done and the defendants' ability to pay;" and an award for interest, costs and reasonable attorney fees.
"We can get punitive damages . . . and I think they're going to award them," Pabst said. "The last couple cases that I've tried, I've gotten punitive damages."
Pabst feels the awarding of punitive damages is justified given how much Paad has suffered since this all began.
"She's been living in a hellish existence since this came up," he said. "(It) totally destroyed her reputation."
Pabst indicated he's willing to listen if the village wants to make a settlement offer, but he's not going to pursue one.
"I'm not going to them," he said. "If they want to be reasonable, if they want to try to settle it, yes, I would try to work something out, but I'm not going to break my back trying to settle it. Why should I? Some cases have to be tried and this is one of them."
When asked if the village is planning to make any type of settlement offer, Davis said that decision is solely up to the MML as the municipality's insurance carrier at the time.
"We, as a village, don't have the authority to initiate (a settlement offer) under our policy coverage," he explained. "It has to be done with the blessing and input of the insurance company and their lawyer."
According to Davis, the village will be meeting with the MML and Forbush "to decide what the strategy will be going forward."
Since Paad filed her lawsuit, the village had a forensic audit conducted which determined that $20,684 in property tax funds from 2010 are missing. The report named Paad as "a person of interest" with regard to it.
In his report, the auditor noted that his comments about Paad "do not imply guilt or criminal intent" by the former village employee.
CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.