MPA to bring sanctions against Black

Participating in a hearing last week in which the MPA/Town settlement was approved by the Court, were: clockwise from top left: Chief Administrative Judge Joycelyn Newman; Maynard Nexsen Attorney David Black; Paul Porter, attorney for MPA Strategies; Pete Balthazar, attorney representing the Town of Blythewood in MPA’s FOI lawsuit and the Town’s countersuit, Ryan Hicks, attorney co-representing MPA Strategies; Ashley Hunter, CEO of MPA was on line/phone to answer questions.

Court Approves Settlement; Black Withdraws

BLYTHEWOOD – In a surprise turn of events during a zoom Richland County Court hearing on Thursday, Jan. 25, an attorney for marketing firm MPA Strategies told the Court his client plans to file for sanctions this week against the Town’s former outside counsel David Black, an attorney with Maynard Nexsen law firm in Columbia.

The revelation came at the end of the brief public hearing after Chief Administrative Judge Joycelyn Newman approved a settlement agreement between MPA Strategies and the Town of Blythewood pertaining to MPA’s FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) lawsuit against the Town and the Town’s countersuit against MPA.

Settlement Approved

Under the settlement, which was approved with prejudice, the Town paid MPA’s attorney fees in the amount of $36,000.

“All the plaintiff (MPA) can recover on her FOIA claim (S.C. Code 30-4-100) is costs and attorney fees,” said MPA Attorney Paul Porter, with Cromer, Babb, and Porter law firm in Columbia. 

“That means this case and [a counterclaim by the Town] have been litigated for two and a half years over a reasonable and finite amount of attorney’s fees on the part of plaintiff over a [marketing] contract that could have been terminated at-will with the payment of an $8,000 two-month notice payout,” Porter said.

The Town, on the other hand, has so far spent more than $700,000 with five attorneys on the FOIA case and the countersuit.

A third lawsuit, a defamation case, filed by MPA CEO and owner Ashley Hunter against former Mayor Bryan Franklin is still pending. That case is scheduled for a roster meeting on Feb. 20. It is being litigated by Franklin’s defense attorney Andrew Lindemann and paid for through the S.C. Municipal Insurance and Risk Financing Fund that is administered through the S.C. Municipal Association with membership fees paid by Blythewood and other municipalities across the state.

Sanctions Against Black

The promised sanctions against Black, which had not been filed as of press time on Wednesday, stem from Black’s refusal to withdraw from the case even though he had been fired by the Mayor on Dec. 11, 2023, in a public news conference held at Blythewood Town Hall. He later refused to file the MPA/Town of Blythewood settlement agreement with the Court after it was agreed to and signed by both parties on Dec. 29, 2023.

Instead, Black has argued that the MPA lawsuits should continue – against the wishes of the current mayor and council – in order to protect the Town’s best interest.

Porter countered in a motion that he filed on Jan. 17, 2024 “that [The Town’s] ‘best interest’ is lawfully determined by council [town council], not counsel [attorney] or a special referee. This is how democracy works.”

Black filed a motion to appoint a Special Master to oversee the lawsuits, a move that the current mayor and council said could effectively side-step them in making decisions for the Town concerning MPA.        

“This case was heavily covered by the local media in Blythewood,” Porter wrote in his Jan. 2, 2024, Motion to Enforce Settlement.

“Constitutional provisions vest [the Town’s] citizens with the right to select their government and representatives. The Town’s citizens did so in November 2023 when it elected its new mayor and town council,” Porter wrote. “In doing so, the Town’s citizens rejected elected officials who have supported the continuation of this action in favor of candidates who opposed it.

“Maynard Counsel (Black) does not have any authority to disregard the will of the voters and their elected counsel,” Porter said. 

“Defendant’s record counsel (Black) was not elected. Defendant’s town council was,” Porter wrote in the Jan. 2 motion.  “…whether or not to settle a case is the choice of the client, not their lawyer.”

“The Ethical Rules of Professional Conduct make this clear,” he said, quoting: “A lawyer shall abide by a client’s decision whether to make or accept an offer of settlement of a matter.”

“Maynard Counsel wants to disregard the instructions of its client’s democratically elected decision-makers in order to continue this costly and unnecessary litigation over the objection of the Defendant (Town), who presumably will continue to be billed for time spent on continuing this litigation,” said Porter. “This is shocking.”

Did Black Disregard Client’s Directives?

“[I] wrote the Defendant’s record counsel [Maynard Nexsen/Black] on Dec. 29, 2023, asking when the stipulation of dismissal would be filed and emphasizing that the timing of the dismissal was important because Plaintiff [Ashley Hunter] was undergoing a professional recertification. Defense counsel replied that it would not be filing the stipulation of dismissal, as directed by its client [the Town] because he “believes the proposal severely harms the Town and its citizens,” Porter wrote.

“The position taken by the defendant’s record counsel is anti-democratic,” Porter continued in his Jan. 2, 2024, Motion to Enforce Settlement. “Blythewood’s citizens, having been inundated with media coverage about this case for the past several years, voted to elect a strong mayor and a majority of council who opposed the continuation of this costly and unnecessary litigation.

“Defendant’s record counsel cannot disregard the directives of its client based on its [Defendant’s record counsel’s] determination about what is best for the Town,” Porter said.

Black removed as counsel

During the hearing, Judge Newman also approved a motion by Black, that was finally filed on Jan. 24, 2024, “to be relieved as counsel” for the Town. Grounds that Black gave for his motion indicated that he was voluntarily withdrawing as counsel for the Town because of the Town’s missteps. He listed as his reasons: 1) failure to meet contractual obligations; and 2) failure to follow his (Black’s) legal advice.

“That’s not true about the reasons as stated in the withdrawal, but certainly the Town consents to that withdrawal by Maynard Nexsen,” Pete Balthazor, the Town’s municipal attorney and current attorney of record for the Town’s/MPA’s lawsuits, told the Judge.

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