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Judge orders city to pay lawyer fees of ex-employees

A judge has ordered the city of Medford to pay nearly half a million dollars in legal fees for a group of retired city employees, including Medford’s former city attorney, marking a conclusion to one of two contentious lawsuits over a refusal to continue health insurance benefits for retirees.

Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Tim Gerking ordered the city to pay $497,874.25 on Thursday to cover more than a decade of legal costs for lawyers representing retired city attorney Ronald Doyle and three other city employees.

The attorney fees are more than 1-1/2 times the $305,000 that Doyle, along with retired public works employee Robert Deuel and retired police officers Benedict Miller and Charles Steinberg recovered in their suits, according to a November filing by the city of Medford.

Gerking, however, described the suit as “uniquely difficult and complex,” and said there was “substantial uncertainty” regarding claims in the suit, which since 2006 has bounced between state, federal and appellate courts, including jury and bench trials.

The battle surrounded the legality under Oregon law of Medford’s health insurance policies, which phased out “bridge” health insurance options for retirees younger than 65 starting in 1990 for union police officers — after the city switched to an Oregon Teamsters health plan — and was phased out for all city employees at the start of 2002.

The Oregon statute surrounding the suit mandates local governments to provide health insurance coverage for employees, and make it available to retirees “insofar as, and to the extent possible.”

Interpreting those quoted seven words required clarification from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which determined it’s within a governing body’s rights to pay all, part or none of the costs to continue health coverage. The Ninth Circuit Court referred the case to the Oregon Supreme Court in 2014, which referred the case to the Oregon Court of Appeals.

In June, the city paid Doyle $102,013, Deuel $91,075, Miller $49,830 and Steinberg $62,080, in amounts that were agreed between the city and the parties, according to Medford's Deputy City Attorney Eric Mitton. A "satisfaction of judgment" document has not yet been filed in court documents, but Mitton said the four men were paid immediately after the ruling. (Corrected)

Doyle has repaid the city a $54.80 fee over a lawsuit he filed against the city over a 2014 impaired-driving arrest in Medford. Doyle had claimed in U.S. District Court that he was unlawfully detained after he was arrested following a traffic stop and blew 0.01 into a Breathalyzer. A federal judge ruled in 2017 that the stop was lawful, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, according to a December court filing in the case.

Gerking did not rule on a second similar lawsuit filed by former public works employee Joseph Bova, whose suit is complicated by the fact that Bova was still employed with the city at the time he filed his suit in 2008. He has since retired. Bova’s suit seeks class action status “on behalf of all similarly situated employees,” but argument surrounds the class action portion of Bova’s suit, including how to define “current” and “qualified” employees, according to another filing by Gerking from 2017.

“Does that term encompass all those individuals who were ‘qualified’ employees of the city on the date the class action was certified, or do individuals lose their qualified status if they leave the employ of the city prior to trial,” Gerking wrote.

Gerking’s order Thursday indicates rulings in Bova’s case are coming soon.

“The court will resolve the balance of pending issues in ‘Bova’ by a second Ruling Order to be rendered in the next 7-10 days,” Gerking wrote in a filing dated Dec. 6.

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTCrimeBeat.

Correction: The city paid Doyle, Deueul, Miller and Steinberg a total of $304,800 in June, according to Medford's deputy city attorney Eric B. Mitton, who described the four awards as agreed-upon amounts. The story as printed Friday referenced court records showing no portion of those judgments had been paid, but Mitton says that's because a lawyer representing four men has not yet filed a "satisfaction of judgment" document publicly recording the city's full payment.

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