Did the City make a secret settlement agreement with former City Manager Tarron Richardson? Emails strongly suggest so.
Email exchanges between lawyers, city officials, and city insurance company representatives suggest the two sides were negotiating.
Last month it was reported that former City Manager Tarron Richardson voluntarily dropped “with prejudice” the federal lawsuit he filed last year against Charlottesville City Council, and other city officials, but emails obtained through a recent FOIA request show that a secret settlement may have been reached.
Local reporting characterized the dismissal of the lawsuit as a failure on Richardson’s part to serve papers to the defendants in time or to understand that he had waived his claims against the city when he signed a non-disparagement agreement in exchange for his severance. But heavily redacted emails that appeared among documents recently obtained by local attorney Jeffery Fogel through a FOIA request -- in his ongoing effort to make the settlement of claims of police misconduct public -- show lawyers, city officials, and representatives of the city’s liability insurance company going back and forth, at least since January 2022, on an email thread with the subject line: City Council of the City of Charlottesville adv. Richardson 3:21-cv-45 Charlottesville FRE 408 SETTLEMENT NEGOTIATIONS.
"I believe the evidence is quite strong that there was a settlement," says Fogel. "We have emails exchanged by the lawyers for both sides that refer to settlement. The fact that it was dismissed with prejudice, meaning it can't be brought back to court, suggests a settlement since truly voluntary withdrawals are usually done without prejudice."
"Keith - Good talking with you yesterday afternoon. I look forward to talking with you further after you have been able to discuss with Dr. Richardson," writes Richard Milnor, the City's attorney, in a January 20, 2022 email to Richardson's Texas-based attorney, Keith French. "Unfortunately the COVID19 situation in my office has gotten worse and as I indicated yesterday I might need to request an extension to file responsive pleadings."
Earlier emails show Milnor corresponding with Greg Washington, the senior claims representative for Virginia Risk Sharing Association, the city’s liability insurance company, and David Corrigan, the Richmond lawyer who previously represented the city's top lawyer, Commonwealth’s Attorney Joseph Platania, when he was sued by a games manufacturer for enforcing a state-wide ban on "skills games" in Charlottesville back in 2019.
"Looking at this now. Any updates regarding settlement?" writes French in an email to Milnor the next day, responding to a request from Milnor to consent to the Motion For Extension.
On March 9, 2022, the day the Daily Progress reported that Richardson’s case had been dismissed, an email exchange between City Attorney Lisa Robertson and former Mayor Nikuyah Walker, who had also been named as a defendant in the lawsuit - along with Robertson, former councilor Heather Hill, City Attorney Lisa Robertson and former City Attorney and former Interim City Manager John Blair - appears to indicate that a settlement was finally reached and was handled by Virginia Risk Association, which among other things, provides local governments with liability coverage for the misconduct of police, public officials, and employees.
As you might recall, Richardson's lawsuit claimed that former Councilor Hill had tried to have him removed from office and that Walker disparaged him in a magazine article and on social media. You can learn more here about the drama and in-fighting that occurred.
"Was I assigned a lawyer? How was this lawsuit resolved? Am I included in this "voluntary" dismissal?" Walker wrote, wanting an immediate update on the case.
"VRSA [Virginia Risk Association], as the City's insurer, has the authority to settle the case, and the VRSA attorney appointed to represent City Council dealt with Dr. Richardson's attorney," Robertson responded, assuring Walker that the case was being dismissed against all defendants, including her. "No City funds are being paid out. Virginia Risk Association did not assign an attorney to you, John Blair or Heather Hill because Dr. Richardson never served any of you with process."
Richardson's lawsuit challenged the scope of non-disparagement agreements under the First Amendment, a common practice used by city governments to silence departing officials and lawsuit claimants. However, even when there isn't such an employment agreement in place, a settlement for silence is often reached. For example, former Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas, who was in charge during the tragic events of August 2017, didn’t have such a clause in his employment contract, but the city negotiated for his silence by offering severance pay even though he voluntarily retired and other terms that remained confidential. As a result, Thomas has never spoken publicly in any detail about what occurred within city government during the lead-up to August 12, 2017.
In his lawsuit, Richardson claimed that he wanted to place an op-ed in the Daily Progress on his way out to address racism in city government and “address the conduct and leadership failures of the City Council and Mayor Walker by name,” but was told by the city attorney's office that they would take legal action against him for violating the non-disparagement agreement in his employment contract. Still, in an unusually candid interview with C-Ville Weekly, Richardson vented his frustration, saying "he was hampered by city officials who didn’t respect where their authority ended and his began,” and not mentioning Councilor Hill and Mayor Walker when he was asked who he worked well within city government. Richardson claimed that he was "fired effectively immediately" by then-City Attorney John Blair for using "his race as a tool of manipulation,” according to emails and text messages exchanged between Hill and Walker, Richardson alleged, and for comments he made in the C-Ville Weekly interview.
Was there a settlement on the side? Was there a settlement payment covered by the City’s insurance company? What did Richardson get in return for voluntarily dropping the case "with prejudice" and walking away, the best possible outcome for the City and other defendants?
It certainly appears there was a secret settlement, but since the emails are so heavily redacted, and there are no public records of the details of a possible settlement, there's no way to definitively confirm the details of one, as nobody involved in the case is going to broadly acknowledge the specifics of its existence.
"You probably can’t get information about a confidential settlement with a FOIA request," says Charlottesville criminal defense attorney David Heilberg, "...if there was a confidential settlement in a side agreement, it is supposed to remain this way. It is almost impossible to penetrate a confidential settlement agreement."
Indeed, with high-priced lawyers and liability insurance companies involved -- and a City attorney's office that knows what can be redacted -- there's often no way for the media and the public to know how our local government operates behind the scenes.