Former Summers County sheriff, deputy still owe attorneys fees in civil rights suit

By Lawrence Smith | Apr 19, 2013

BECKLEY – A judge has ruled a former Summers County sheriff and his chief deputy are not only still on the hook for damages awarded in a former deputy’s civil rights lawsuit, but also her attorney’s fees.

Last month, U.S. District Judge Irene C. Berger made favorable post-trial rulings in Cheryl Bratcher’s case against Edward Dolphin and James Chellis. On March 19, Berger first denied Dolphin’s and Chellis’ motion to alter or amend damages a jury awarded Bratcher nearly a year ago, then three days later ruled they were to pay most of the nearly $66,000 her attorney incurred in helping her pursue the case.

According to her suit, Bratcher was hired in 2008 by then-Sheriff Gary Wheeler as an office deputy. Her duties included supervising and detaining prisoners and conducting searches of female prisoners before placing them in holding cells.

After Dolphin defeated Wheeler in that year’s general election, he appointed Chellis as chief deputy after formally taking office in 2009. For the remainder of her employment, Bratcher says Chellis sexually tormented her by make crude comments about her, and, on at least one instance, shocking her in the buttocks with a stun gun.

Following a six-day trial, a jury on April 11, 2012, sided with Bratcher on her claim that Chellis created a hostile work environment. In addition to $500 in compensatory damages, the jury awarded her $12,500 in punitive damages.

From the punitive damages, Chellis was to pay $10,000 and Dolphin the remainder. Though the jury did determine Dolphin was either “deliberate indifferent” toward or “tacitly authorized” Chellis’ conduct, it did not find any merit to Bratcher’s claims he discriminated against her when he denied her a five percent pay raise given to the other deputies.

In her 17-page opinion, Berger said she was “not persuaded that the punitive damages award in this case bears an unreasonable relationship to the compensatory damages award.” Most juries tend not to give large awards in civil rights cases, Berger said.

In her ruling, she surmised the reason the jury awarded Bratcher only $13,000 was due to the modest medical bill she incurred after seeking treatment for the stun gun incident. According to court records, it was $91.

Because she was successful in proving at least three of her claims – battery and hostile work environment against Chellis, and supervisory liability against Dolphin – Berger in a 14-page opinion issued March 22 said Bratcher’s attorney, Anthony R. Veneri, can recover most of the fees and all the expenses he incurred.

According to court records, Veneri submitted an affidavit showing he performed a total of 242.25 hours in the case charging $250 an hour. Also, his affidavit stated his expenses totaled $5,979.99.

In her ruling, Berger left Veneri’s hourly rate unchanged, but reduced his total hours to 193.80. Along with all the expenses, Berger ordered Dolphin and Chellis to pay him $54,429.99.

Attempts by the West Virginia Record to discover if Dolphin and Chellis paid both the jury award and attorneys fees or were planning to appeal Berger’s rulings were unsuccessful. According to a woman who answered the telephone at his office, Veneri was out all week at a trial in McDowell County, and Michael Taylor, Dolphin and Chellis’ co-counsel, did not return repeated phone calls by presstime.

Also, Summers County Prosecutor Amy Mann did not return repeated calls inquiring whether the county’s insurance company would be paying the award and fees, and, if so, its deductible.

In November’s general election, Wheeler, a Democrat, staged a successful comeback by defeating Dolphin, a Republican. Chellis is no longer employed with the department.

U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, case number 10-cv-1100

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