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Former Towaliga public defender wins $100,000, reinstatement

A former Towaliga Circuti public defender has won over $100,000 and an order reinstating him to his post the Atlanta Journal Constitution reports. By Bill Rankin, AJC A public defender who was fired after lodging complaints about his Middle Georgia office has reached a financial settlement that also allows him to be reinstated as a defender. Jim Kight filed a whistle-blower lawsuit against the state indigent defense system in June, contending he was retaliated against for complaining he had to carry crushing caseloads and work in a dilapidated office with unsanitary conditions. The settlement, reached last week, calls for the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council to pay $100,000 to Kight and his lawyers, refund more than $7,400 in lost retirement benefits and reinstate him as a public defender in the Brunswick Judicial Circuit. ‘The Georgia Whistleblower Act protects public defenders from being retaliated against when they speak out about constitutional deficiencies in our indigent defense system,’ Kight’s lawyers, Michael Caplan and Chris Giovinazzo, said in a joint statement. ‘Jim demonstrated courage and selflessness by exposing serious problems … and lost his job as a result,’ they said. ‘We are pleased that the GPDSC has agreed to reinstate Jim as a public defender as well as provide him compensation.’ Travis Sakrison, executive director of the state defender council, said his agency does not retaliate or tolerate retaliation against whistleblowers. ‘No wrong was done on our part,’ he said in a statement, which noted the former head of the Towaliga office is no longer employed by the agency. ‘Whatever previous concerns there were in the Towaliga office have been more than adequately addressed and its future is bright,’ Sakrison said. Before he was fired in October 2013, Kight worked eight years as a public defender in the Towaliga Judicial Circuit, which handles indigent defense cases in Butts, Lamar and Monroe counties. Conditions in the Towaliga office in Forsyth became unbearable last year, Kight’s lawsuit said. The building’s roof leaked, its plumbing system routinely backed up, mold covered the walls, the front-door steps collapsed and windows fell out of the walls because of rotten wood. Moreover, the suit said, Kight carried 350 to 400 cases a year in Monroe County and was asked to pick up cases in Butts County as well. Because positions were left unfilled, Kight confronted his supervisor about it and then took his complaints to the state defender agency. Kight would be fired and rehired on two occasions before finally being let go the final time on Oct. 9, 2013, the suit said. Stephen Bright, a senior lawyer with the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, said Kight had been an ‘outstanding’ public defender during his eight years in the Towaliga circuit. Even though Kight repeatedly brought to the attention of the state public defender agency the problems at the office, the agency did nothing, Bright said. ‘He should have been celebrated as a champion of the right to counsel,’ Bright added. ‘Instead, he was fired three times. The settlement is vindication of his courageous, heroic stand for the right to counsel.’

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