Livingston Parish President Layton Ricks no longer faces a court order to pay the legal bills of two former Parish Council members sued personally for alleged defamation, according to an appeals court ruling issued Thursday.
The state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal said the Parish Council had other legal options besides seeking a writ of mandamus — a court order compelling a public official to perform a legally required duty — for settling its dispute with Ricks over the legal fees.
The appellate ruling reversed an October 2014 order of Judge Brenda Ricks, no relation to the parish president, of the 21st Judicial District Court in Livingston, commanding the parish president to pay the bills.
Judge Ricks had ruled that the parish president could not selectively choose which Parish Council resolutions he would follow and, therefore, must obey the council’s wishes that he pay the legal bills of then-council members Marshall Harris and Cindy Wale Franz.
The 1st Circuit specifically declined to rule on whether a council resolution legally binds a parish president to act or if the president has discretion in following a resolution. Instead, the appeals panel of Judges Wayne Ray Chutz, Guy Holdridge and John Michael Guidry said the council failed to demonstrate that other legal remedies, such as a lawsuit for a declaratory judgment, would have unjustly caused delay.
“Mandamus is an extraordinary remedy which should be applied only where ordinary means fail to afford adequate relief,” the appeals court ruling states.
Harris and Wale Franz faced a pair of defamation lawsuits over comments they made in interviews for a March 2013 WBRZ-TV news report. The report claimed former Council Clerk Mary Kistler, who is now the parish president’s top aide, had changed the wording of a council resolution to allow Alvin Fairburn & Associates, the parish president’s former employer, to bill for more road engineering work than the council had authorized.
Kistler and Fairburn sued the two council members individually, saying they were not seeking money from the parish but from Harris and Wale Franz personally. Fairburn’s lawsuit was later dismissed as part of a larger settlement of multiple legal disputes between the firm and the parish. Kistler’s suit remains active.
Layton Ricks repeatedly refused to pay for Harris’ and Wale Franz’s legal defense, citing a state attorney general’s opinion that suggested the parish wait until the case concluded before using public money to pay for what might be deemed a private lawsuit.
Ricks had said he would pay the bills only after the defamation lawsuits ended with a judgment declaring the two council members had acted as public officials.
The council — then comprised of nine different members than those now holding office — latched onto a different section of the same attorney general’s opinion that stated that the council could choose to pay the bills if it believed Harris and Wale Franz had acted as public officials in giving the interviews.
Two weeks after their inauguration, the all-new council unanimously voted to rescind the prior council’s resolutions ordering Ricks to pay the bills and to end the related lawsuit between the parish government’s two branches.
That lawsuit was dismissed Feb. 18.
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