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BREAKING THURS. P.M.: Insurance companies settle lawsuit against sheriff, Graham police

Insurance companies representing Alamance County and the city of Graham have decided to settle a lawsuit filed by 19 plaintiffs against the county’s sheriff’s office and Graham police department stemming from the Halloween Day 2020 march and protest, The Alamance News has learned late Thursday afternoon.

As structured, the settlement apparently does not need the approval of either jurisdiction’s elected body – the county’s commissioners or the Graham city council – inasmuch as the insurance companies will bear the entire cost of the settlement, the newspaper was told.

According to information provided to the newspaper, the county’s insurance carrier will pay $162,450 and the city’s will pay $174,450, for a combined payout of $336,900, just under the $351,500 that a lawyer for the plaintiffs had offered in a settlement overture letter obtained last month by The Alamance News. The plaintiffs include 13 adults, four minor children, and two racial justice organizations led by several of the individual plaintiffs.

The city is insured through the North Carolina League of Municipalities, the county through Travelers Insurance.

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Graham mayor Jennifer Talley told the newspaper Thursday afternoon that the city’s taxpayers will not bear any of the cost.  She said the insurance companies had decided to settle the lawsuit and pay in order to avoid prolonged litigation and the potential legal expenses that might ensue. Talley emphasized that Graham taxpayers would not be asked to fund any portion of the settlement.

Other sources had previously added that the insurance companies are also reluctant to carry suits to trial, even when they believe in their clients’ side of cases, because of the uncertainty, and potentially greater financial exposure, surrounding a future jury trial.

Talley explained that the higher payout on behalf of the city’s insurance carrier – $12,000 more than the county’s – was because of a “cap” on the county’s insurance policy, not because of any greater culpability on behalf of the city or its police force.

Indeed, the agreement includes explicit language to the effect that neither city nor county admit any guilt or wrongdoing with regard to their law enforcement agencies’ actions on October 31, 2020.

Specifically, the agreement states, “Nothing in this Agreement is to be construed as, or deemed to be, an admission by any of the Parties with respect to the claims or arguments asserted or that could have been asserted in the Lawsuit or with respect to the Released Claims. The Parties agree that they have entered into this Agreement in compromise of disputed claims to avoid further expense and protracted litigation and that such compromise is not an admission of any liability or wrongdoing by any Party. Defendants specifically deny any and all liability or wrongdoing. ”

Sheriff Terry Johnson, when contacted by the newspaper late Thursday afternoon, said he was “opposed to the settlement” and “didn’t know about it” until called by a newspaper reporter.

Settling such lawsuits he had previously told the newspaper, which he reiterated Thursday, only encourages future litigation by those hoping to profit from the taxpayers or government insurance carriers.

Johnson also stressed that his officers had been professional in the midst of an unruly group of demonstrators who objected and resisted when deputies terminated their rally on the grounds of the Historic Court House for having violated the permit they had obtained from him for the occasion.


Original March 28 settlement offer from plaintiffs’ attorney

The original March 28 letter offering the settlement came from attorney Stephen M. Medlock of the Mayer Brown law firm, as first reported on on April 6 and the following day in the print edition of The Alamance News.

The original settlement terms offered by Medlock would have required Graham police chief Kristi Cole to have an “on-the-record in-person meeting lasting at least 60 minutes within 60 days of the effective settlement agreement” with the plaintiffs.

Alamance County sheriff Terry Johnson would have been required to have an “off-the-record meeting lasting at least 60 minutes” with the plaintiffs within 60 days of the settlement date. The proposed settlement agreement also carried a stipulation that the meeting with the sheriff “may not be recorded using audio and/or visual recording methods, but note taking is allowed.”

The final settlement continues to include the requirement that Graham’s police chief agree to an “on-the-record, in-person closed meeting, without attorneys or press, lasting at least 60 minutes at the Graham Police Department’s offices” within 60 days of the dismissal of the lawsuit.

However, the proposed requirement of a similar meeting with the sheriff, which would have been prohibited from being recorded, has been dropped altogether.


Agreement will apparently have no effect on criminal cases

The terms of the proposed settlement would also have required the sheriff to ask the Alamance County district attorney’s office to dismiss the pending criminal charges against Drumwright and his assistant, Brenden Kee. If the D.A.’s office refused to dismiss the charges, then Johnson would have been required to prohibit his personnel from testifying at Drumwright’s and Kee’s trials on appeal in Alamance County superior court.

Neither of those provisions appears to have been included in the final agreement.

In September 2021, a retired visiting district court judge from Orange County found Drumwright guilty of misdemeanor charges of resisting a public officer and failure to disperse

[Story continues below photos.]

Photo collage from October 31, 2020 march and rally in downtown Graham:

A photo provided by Alamance County sheriff’s office, showing Drumwright reaching in to stop deputy from removing the gas-powered generator at his rally on October 31, 2020. The permit explicitly prohibited anything other than a battery-powered generator.
Part of the October 31, 2020 protest in downtown Graham included marchers kneeling for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, representing the amount of time a Minneapolis police officer had his foot on George Floyd’s neck before he died earlier that year in police custody.
     While plans called for the protesters to move out of the roadway onto courthouse grounds for a subsequent rally, many initially stayed in the road and did not respond to police directives to move out of Main Street and the traffic circle around the Historic Court House.
William Traynor after being taken into custody on October 31, 2020.
Rev. Greg Drumwright during the October 31,2020 march in Graham.

on command but not guilty of a misdemeanor riot charge stemming from his refusal to leave the Alamance County Historic Court House grounds on October 31, 2020.

The same judge found Kee, who described himself as a minister and co-outreach director for Drumwright’s church in Greensboro, guilty in September 2021 of misdemeanor resisting a public officer; public disturbance; and failure to disperse on command in connection with the October 31 march and rally in downtown Graham. Both men announced at the conclusion of their trials in district court last fall that they would appeal their convictions to superior court.
If approved, the payment to the plaintiffs would be tax-exempt.

The proposed settlement agreement proposed by Medlock had included a provision, stating, “For tax purposes, Plaintiffs ask that the agreement specify that this payment shall constitute only compensation for alleged physical injury and pain and suffering, including alleged emotional harm arising from the physical injury.” Compensatory awards for alleged personal injuries are not taxable under federal tax regulations.

The final agreement leaves a determination on the taxation of the proceeds to each individual plaintiff and his or her tax advisor.

In exchange for a settlement payment, the original payment proposed by Medlock had offered that the plaintiffs would cease any further filings in the suit. The two sides in the litigation attempted to negotiate a mediated settlement in the dispute earlier this year but couldn’t reach an agreement, based on federal court filings.


Background on the lawsuit

The lawsuit was originally filed in federal court by Rev. Gregory Drumwright of Greensboro, on November 2, 2020, two days after law enforcement used pepper spray to clear the roadway around Alamance County’s Historic Court House and to disperse the crowd of about 200 from the grounds of the county’s Historic Court House.

Graham police officers testified last year that they had deployed pepper spray, which they directed toward the ground, when marchers refused to leave the roadway around Court Square following an 8-minute, 46-second silent tribute for George Floyd at the end of the march down Main Street and prior to the rally at the Historic Court House.

Law enforcement testified at numerous trials in Alamance County district court last year that the event was declared an unlawful assembly and terminated following the discovery of a gas generator and two gas cans that had been brought onto the courthouse grounds, violating a facilities use permit that Drumwright had been granted and gave him exclusive use of the property that day.

Alamance County sheriff’s deputies testified at multiple trials in district court last year that three verbal warnings had been delivered, over a bullhorn during a 16-minute time span, before pepper spray was deployed.

In his suit, Drumwright contended that the use of pepper spray – to disperse the crowd, after the march had been declared an unlawful assembly – was a “planned and orchestrated violent dispersal of a peaceful and nonpartisan march to a polling place” on the last day of early voting, which the plaintiffs claim violated their constitutional rights. The lawsuit lists more than three dozen defendants, including: approximately 30 Graham police officers and Alamance County sheriff’s deputies; Alamance County sheriff Terry Johnson; Graham police chief Kristy Cole; and the city of Graham.

The city and county agreed last year to pay $60,000 each to settle a parallel suit over alleged personal injury claims and alleged constitutional violations stemming from the same march and rally in downtown Graham on October 31, 2020.

Drumwright is currently a Democratic candidate for an at-large seat on Guilford County’s board of commissioners, running against Democratic incumbent commissioner Katie (“Kay”) Cashion in the May 17 primary.

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