Former Nelsonville attorney files lawsuit claiming city owes him for years of unpaid work

Posted on:

< < Back to

ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) – Nelsonville’s former attorney is suing the city claiming he is owed over $260,000 in legal fees.

Garry Hunter filed the lawsuit in federal court on May 9, almost a month after the city offered him less than half of what he says he is owed. Hunter addressed this offer in an email he sent to the city auditor on April 11. The offer, he wrote, came “with no explanation why I should consider less than full payment.”

Hunter concluded the email with a warning: “If this matter is not resolved by either payment in a lump sum, or by an agreement to payment over time in the next thirty days, legal action will be given strong consideration.” 

The money Hunter allegedly hasn’t been paid is from two contracts he signed with the city. One, from 2012, was to perform general city attorney work. The other, signed in 2018, was to help the city with financing and construction of a sewer project.

Both contracts set Hunter’s pay at $150 an hour.

In an August 2021 email to city officials, Hunter said that in July 2019 he sent the city a bill that so far had not been paid. He also said he submitted an updated bill in September 2020 that also had not been paid.

It appears the city was planning to pay Hunter.

In March 2021, city Auditor Taylor Sappington addressed City Council members in an email to request their input on authorization of the payments to Hunter. 

“I know it’s controversial,” Sappington wrote, “but the fact is I must ask and council must make the final call on this one, so I’m putting this over in your court to decide on whether to send it to the regular council session.”

Sappington told WOUB he referred to paying Hunter as controversial because the council was unsure about what action to take. 

Three months later, in early June 2021, former City Manager Scott Frank emailed Hunter to let him know the city was going to “switch directions” and contract with another city attorney starting July 1. 

In a June 20 email to council members, Hunter confirmed he was completely moved out of his office.

A week later, on June 28, 2021, the council took up an ordinance to authorize payment of the invoices submitted by Hunter for work he had done under his two contracts with the city.

The ordinance’s second reading was on July 12. Some council members had questions on items Hunter billed for, and some didn’t feel they had the authority to authorize payments because they weren’t on council at the time the work was done.

The ordinance was tabled and the issue of Hunter’s invoices was sent to the Finance Committee so council members could get more information. 

The committee took up the invoices just over a month later. Hunter emailed committee members the same morning as the meeting, asking why an ordinance was even necessary. 

“I have never seen the necessity for a council ordinance to pay fees even in prior years,” Hunter wrote. “If this is the case, every year council would be approving payroll in January for December work and there are many contract bills that are received for prior year work.” 

The committee met later that evening. Councilwoman Carla Grant started the meeting saying, “We have been asked for more details before we pay the bill.” 

Though the committee had been asked for more details, it didn’t have any answers. Grant and Councilman Dan Sherman, another member of the committee, agreed, however, that Hunter should be paid.

“Legal fees were actually built into the sewer plant project,” Sherman said, “and can be spent for nothing other than legal fees.”  

But the ordinance to pay Hunter did not return to the council for a vote. Sherman told WOUB he doesn’t recall why the ordinance wasn’t considered again.

In March 2023 Hunter again sent invoices to the city, for work done through June 2021, and this time with interest added to the amount owed. The itemized billings for both the sewer project and general city attorney work, dating back to mid-2018, fill 78 pages. The total billed was $113,411.63 for city attorney work and $154,665.68 for the sewer project.

This led to the offer for less than half the amount billed and Hunter’s lawsuit against the city. It’s unclear why the city has not paid Hunter for the work detailed in his invoices and why it offered a significantly lower amount.

WOUB reached out to city officials to find out the reason – for example, is the city disputing some of the charges or is it simply trying to reduce the amount due. 

“My job is to make sure that the money is safe and sound and being used for appropriate purposes,” Sappington said. “As long as the proceedings hash out a solution that works for the citizens, I’m good.”

Council members disagree over the issue, some say he should be paid because he did the work, and others say he shouldn’t because of billing problems. Sherman told WOUB he thinks Hunter should be paid because he did the work. 

Cory Taylor was on council during the time of Hunter’s employment. Taylor said he believes Hunter should be paid for work done on the sewer plant project but not for the city attorney job. 

“Those are separate invoices pertaining to his actual job that he was supposed to be doing for the city and paid monthly,” Taylor said. “Billing anything over 30 days, I’m not gonna pay it. So I don’t think the city should pay it.”

WOUB reviewed Hunter’s employment contracts. The sewer project contract did not specify how often Hunter had to submit invoices, but does say the city is to pay him within 30 days after receiving an invoice. The contract for city attorney also did not specify when invoices had to be submitted, but there is a reference in the contract to monthly billing. 

Sappington told WOUB that when he became the city auditor, Hunter was asked to send monthly invoices. Sappington said the request wasn’t fulfilled until 2021.

Hunter said in his August 2021 email to city officials that he was paid for his monthly invoices starting in February 2021, but was not paid for all the work done prior to that.