The full cost of a federal civil rights lawsuit that stemmed from a confrontation between a newspaper carrier and Sheriff Ed Troyer was more than $1.1 million, public records show.
Pierce County last year agreed to pay the former newspaper carrier, Sedrick Altheimer, $500,015 to settle the case in U.S. District Court, plus $300,000 in attorney fees. According to invoice records released to The News Tribune, the cost of paying lawyers to defend the county and Troyer in the two-year-long case was another $323,494.60, bringing the total cost to the county to $1,123,509.60.
Money used to pay the settlement came out of the county’s self-insurance fund, which is managed by the Department of Risk Management, said Libby Catalinich, a spokesperson for Pierce County. Invoice records show payment for the legal services also came out of that fund.
Whether the county would defend Troyer in the civil case was Prosecutor Mary Robnett’s decision to make, according to Adam Faber, a spokesperson for her office. In an email, he said Robnett had to decide whether the claim arose out of Troyer’s official duties. Faber said Robnett determined it did, largely basing her decision on Troyer’s statements, the county charter and what state law has to say about a sheriff’s duties.
Deputy prosecutors assigned to the civil division routinely represent county employees in lawsuits related to their official duties. In this case, outside counsel was hired to defend the county and Troyer. Faber said that was done because it was possible that, in the course of litigation, the interests of Troyer and the county might conflict or diverge.
“And because our office had knowledge of the situation that could potentially cut against or benefit the interests of the county or the sheriff, it was best in this situation to appoint outside counsel for the county and for the sheriff,” Faber said. “Assigning outside attorneys who had no prior involvement was the safest course of action.”
Gregory Jackson of Renton-based law firm Jackson & Nicholson represented the county at a rate of $295 per hour, records show. Defending Troyer were Leland Selby Jr. and Eric Schacht, who primarily worked for Ledger Square Law while the case was adjudicated but have since left for other firms.
Selby started work on Troyer’s case in October 2021 for $350 per hour, and his rate increased to $425 per hour in July last year. Schacht started at $225 per hour, and his compensation was increased to $275 per hour.
“The attorneys that were assigned did a great job,” Troyer said in a phone call. “They were engaged and did a great job, and I have zero complaints about them.”
When told the total amount Selby and Schacht billed the county, $179,570.02, Troyer said, “Wow.”
Ledger Square Law extended discounts to Troyer totaling $13,245.92, and the law firm Selby worked for toward the end of the case, Selby Morgan & Born, gave the sheriff discounts totaling $6,454.02. The law firm that represented Pierce County did not give any discounts.
“I was going with what the prosecutor decided because she knows best in this,” Troyer said. “And I agreed with her because she said that, you know, when they said this would be best, I agreed.”
The lawsuit in U.S. District Court alleged that Troyer recklessly disregarded Altheimer’s civil rights and used “racial animus” when the sheriff repeatedly told a dispatcher that the man had threatened to kill him the night of Jan. 27, 2021, initially triggering a massive law enforcement response.
Altheimer was delivering newspapers in Troyer’s West End neighborhood at about 2 a.m. when the sheriff became suspicious of his driving and began to follow him in his own SUV.
The newspaper carrier noticed he was being followed and confronted the driver, later identified as Troyer. Body-camera footage from Tacoma Police Department officers who responded that night showed Altheimer, then 24, saying he was being followed because he was Black man in a white neighborhood.
Altheimer was not arrested but he was detained, patted down and had his car searched. Police also questioned him. His lawsuit asserted the detainment amounted to false arrest.
The lawsuit was filed in October 2021, months before prosecutors from the Washington State Attorney General’s Office charged Troyer with two misdemeanors: false reporting and making a false or misleading statement to a public servant. Troyer was acquitted of those allegations in a jury trial in 2022.
The Pierce County Council originally voted not to pay for Troyer’s defense in the criminal case. After he was found not guilty, the council went back on their decision in May last year, approving payment of the sheriff’s defense costs from vacancy savings and agreeing to pay an amount not to exceed $332,000.
Troyer was represented by a duo of lawyers from Seattle-based firm Frey Buck, Anne Bremner and Nick Gross. Bremner last year successfully defended former Tacoma police officer Timothy Rankine in the trial of three officers charged in the death of Manuel Ellis.
Regarding the civil case, Troyer said Wednesday that he was looped into the decision to settle with Altheimer but ultimately the decision to settle rather than go to trial fell to the county.
“I already had gone to trial once, and I sure as heck wasn’t afraid to do it again if need be,” Troyer said.
Civil cases have a much lower burden of proof than criminal courts’ standard of “beyond reasonable doubt.” In civil courts it’s known as the preponderance of evidence standard, meaning a jury would have to decide whether a plaintiff has proven their legal claims are more likely than not.
An attorney for Altheimer told The Seattle Times that her client agreed to the settlement because he’d recently faced a crisis, a fire that had destroyed his apartment. Altheimer’s initial tort claim filed against Pierce County in June 2021 sought $5 million.
Publicly available data from Pierce County government shows that Altheimer’s settlement with the county is the ninth-largest payout since 2016. The Sheriff’s Department has paid out more in settlements than every other department combined since that time, according to the data, with the total hitting more than $24.5 million as of Jan. 5.