Pierce County Council members decided recently to appeal a judge's ruling in a long-running case involving Prosecutor Mark Lindquist's text messages.
The move, framed as an effort to reach a "global" settlement tied to a separate lawsuit, exposes the county to potential new legal expenses in the text-message case, a long-running dispute with a running bill that already exceeds $1 million.
The appeal marks a reversal of sorts. In March, after Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese ruled that the text messages were public, Lindquist's spokesman James Lynch responded to a request for comment, saying, "While we respectfully disagree with the court’s decision on the nine messages, we have released them and do not intend to appeal.”
The council's subsequent decision, tucked into the consent agenda of its May 1 regular meeting, wasn't obvious on the surface. It didn't mention an appeal. Members voted unanimously to approve "requested settlement authority" in two legal cases: the text-message case, decided earlier this year in Thurston County Superior Court, and a separate case filed in 2016 in Tacoma's U.S. District Court.
County Council chairman Doug Richardson and other council members told the News Tribune that an explicit public vote to appeal the text-message case was not required and that granting "settlement authority" amounted to the same thing.
Asked for comment, Richardson replied with an emailed statement:
“Pierce County sent a settlement offer to the attorney representing Ms. Nissen in two pending lawsuits against Pierce County. Due to the fact that we are in active litigation, I will not comment on the details of the settlement offer but our intention is to finally end this litigation and move on for the benefit of the taxpayers of the County. The County also filed a Notice of Appeal in the Nissen II public records matter. This action allows the County to preserve all available options if our offer to settle is not accepted.”
The plaintiff in both suits is former county sheriff's deputy Glenda Nissen, who prevailed repeatedly in the text-message case — most recently in a ruling authored by Lanese. The judge found that "Mark Lindquist did not comply with the Public Records Act" and awarded Nissen roughly $349,000 in fines for nondisclosure and attorney fees. The appeal stalls that payment and keeps the case alive.
Nissen's federal suit, still active and unresolved, alleges that Lindquist sought to ruin her career and reputation. The county has paid outside attorneys $702,623 to defend that case, according to risk management records.
Among other things, the federal suit cites documented efforts by Lindquist's staffers to blackball Nissen after she was assigned in 2015 to investigate sexual assault cases against child victims. High-ranking prosecutors ordered subordinates not to speak with Nissen or use the evidence she gathered, according to records; subordinates protested, saying the directive was unprecedented and could put child victims at risk.
The council's recent decision effectively ties the lawsuits together, though one — the text-message case — is resolved and the other is not. In essence, the "settlement authority" allows Seattle attorney Mike Patterson, who is handling the federal lawsuit, to enter negotiations. Appealing the text-message case allows the county to delay payment of the awarded nondisclosure fines and fees, creating a potential bargaining chip to end the federal case.
According to sources familiar with the matters, mediation talks began before the council made its May 1 decision. The two sides did not reach an agreement. Nissen's attorney, Joan Mell, referred to the stalled mediation in a statement to The News Tribune, and questioned the council's move.
"It appears chair Richardson and perhaps his fellow council members have been hoodwinked by the Prosecutor to keep the gravy train flowing to Lindquist’s team of lawyers until after the election," she wrote. "There is no new settlement authority there. Their motion was a sham. The judgment in Nissen's text case is accruing interest every day Pierce County refuses to pay. It’s simply nonnegotiable. Lindquist’s lawyers are laughing at this maneuver all the way to the bank at the public’s expense. Mr. Richardson and his fellow council members have just written a blank check to Lindquist’s lawyers."