Metropolitan King County Council
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Seattle, WA 98104
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March 18, 2013
County Council approves proposed settlement with public defense employees
Dolan agreement confirms transition of public defenders to County employment, with retirement and benefitsThe Metropolitan King County Council gave its unanimous approval today to a proposed settlement agreement between King County and the plaintiff in the class action case of Dolan v. King County. The agreement still requires approval from the judge overseeing the case. If approved, the agreement will end a seven-year class action lawsuit seeking public pension benefits for public defense employees. It also protects the public from the risk of further claims.
“The council hopes that through approving this settlement agreement, this case can move one step closer to being resolved,” said Council Chair Larry Gossett. “The Council now must take up the arduous task of the reorganization of the delivery of public defense services in King County to comply with the decision delivered by the court in the Dolan case.”
“The settlement agreement adopted today balances King County's responsibility to meet our obligations ruled by the Washington state Supreme Court while also mitigating our financial burden so that we are better positioned to continue to provide a high level of service for county residents,” said Council Vice Chair Julia Patterson.
“It is important that public defense employees will have benefits similar to others in the criminal justice system,” said Council Vice Chair Jane Hague.
“With this settlement we acknowledge the ruling of the state Supreme Court – that for some time public defenders in King County have been County employees for the purpose of retirement benefits,” said King County Executive Dow Constantine. “We must now move forward to implement the consequences of the court’s decision in a way that remains client-centered, free from political influence, and cost-effective for the public.”
King County has historically contracted with private, non-profit entities for the provision of public defense services. In January 2006, a class action lawsuit was filed against King County alleging that King County had a duty to enroll lawyers and staff of the non-profits in the Public Employees' Retirement System (PERS). After a trial court decision and appeal, the Washington Supreme Court ruled in January 2012 that the non-profits were "arms and agencies" of County government, and that the defenders were therefore County employees for the purpose of retirement benefits.
The ordinance adopted by the Council approves the proposed settlement agreement negotiated by the County and the plaintiff representing the class. It includes $31 million in retroactive PERS contributions dating back to 1978, and recognition of public defense employees as County employees with full benefits on July 1, 2013, the day after current contracts with the non-profits expire. The settlement provides the public with certainty by resolving the seven-year litigation over public pension benefits and by resolving class members’ claims to other benefits.
“We are agreeing to resolve the legal issues consistent with the Supreme Court’s order, and we welcome the public defender staff as King County employees,” said Councilmember Kathy Lambert. “This will continue our delivery of outstanding public defense services to our citizens in need.”
“I believe this settlement is in the County’s best financial interest. If approved by the Court, this settlement will end litigation on this issue,” said Councilmember Joe McDermott. “The County Council now turns its attention to the Executive’s proposal to structure our public defenders as County employees. We have a record of strong public defense, and I am committed to ensuring that our citizens continue to have access to a fair and just legal system as we move forward.”
“Public defenders are a key element of our criminal justice system and these employees deserve comparable benefits to their peers,” said Councilmember Reagan Dunn. “This settlement will protect King County taxpayers from costly litigation and put an end to this long drawn out case.”
“Today’s action approving a hard-negotiated settlement gives King County the chance to end multi-year litigation and protects taxpayers from potentially costly further proceedings at a trial,” said Councilmember Rod Dembowski. “It also represents the first step toward restructuring our vital public defense system. I look forward to ensuring that our restructured public defense system remains independent and highly effective.”
The settlement will now be submitted to the trial court judge, Pierce County Superior Court Judge Hickman, for required judicial approval. Class members and other interested parties will have an opportunity to comment on the settlement as part of the judicial approval process. This settlement supports the justice and safety goal of the King County Strategic Plan by ensuring the availability of public defenders for those who need them.
The Executive has transmitted a separate piece of legislation to the County Council proposing a new structure for public defense services in King County that implements the state Supreme Court mandate. That legislation is under consideration by the Council.