Nearly six years of legal wrangling between a former Charleston County public defender and his former boss is over, as Beattie Butler, who alleges that he was wrongfully terminated from the 9th Circuit Public Defender’s Office in 2014, has settled his lawsuit against Circuit Public Defender Ashley Pennington for $605,000.
Butler’s complaint included several other actions for defamation, breach of contract, denial of due process, and violations of the Family and Medical Leave Act.
Butler, then the office’s chief litigator, accused Pennington of stifling his free speech “countless times” by blocking his attempts to file misconduct grievances against the 9th Circuit Solicitor’s Office or criticizing, publicly or privately, Solicitor Scarlett Wilson.
Eventually, Butler took his concerns of corruption to the South Carolina Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (SCACDL), which later filed a grievance against Wilson with the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, which was ultimately dismissed.
Butler said that his decision angered Pennington and contributed to a retaliatory termination just as Butler was at his lowest point in his battle with rectal cancer.
“He fired me because I made public his office policy with respect to prosecutorial misconduct, part of which included ordering me to not to report it, or even speak about it to others,” Butler told Lawyers Weekly.
In his answer to the complaint, Pennington contended that Butler was fired because his behavior and personal issues with the solicitor’s office had become “disruptive” to the public defender’s office and its efficiency.
Caroline Cleveland and Bob Conley of Cleveland & Conley of Charleston and Nancy Bloodgood and Lucy Sanders of Mount Pleasant represented Pennington. A message left with Cleveland & Conley wasn’t immediately returned, but in a 2015 email to Lawyers Weekly, Pennington wrote that he has never tried to quash grievances about prosecutorial misconduct and that Butler sensationalized his complaints.
Butler asserted not only a constitutional right to speak about Wilson, a publicly elected official, but an obligation as an attorney to report alleged deception and evidentiary manipulation in criminal cases. In fact, Butler self-reported to the ODC, fearing that his silence may have breached his ethical duties.
Prior bad acts
Butler alleges that in 2007, attorneys from the solicitor’s office began a pattern of misconduct against public defender clients that continued for several years.
For example, Butler said that an assistant solicitor in a 2007 murder trial introduced a purported eyewitness’s statement that they knew had been recanted, then tried to conceal the retraction. The failure to disclose exculpatory evidence ultimately led to a mistrial, Butler said. The complaint alleged that Pennington told Butler to keep the grievance to himself lest Wilson’s office retaliate against public defender clients.
In 2012, the South Carolina Supreme Court struck down the state’s system of allowing prosecutors to control the criminal docket and exclusively determine how criminal cases are disposed of. Butler alleged that Pennington and Wilson looked to circumvent that ruling by drafting a variance allowing Wilson to control all criminal cases for 30 months after a defendant’s arrest. Butler said that Pennington told Wilson in an email that he had not let other circuit defenders in on the plan.
That same year, Butler said, one of his clients spent two years in jail awaiting a murder trial that was “replete with errors and questionable conduct by prosecutors.” Butler contends that despite undisputed evidence that the defendant acted in self-defense, solicitors vigorously opposed a motion for directed verdict that was ultimately granted with the court’s apologies. Wilson allegedly told media outlets that it was Butler’s fault that his client sat in jail so long because she would’ve dropped the charges if Butler hadn’t withheld exculpatory information to put on a dramatic trial.
Butler also accused Pennington of leaking contents of an SCACDL listserv—posts Butler made confidentially seeking feedback from other defense attorneys regarding the alleged misconduct—to Wilson, who in an email thanked Pennington for the “heads up.”
Reputations at stake
In his defamation claim, Butler alleged that Pennington and the county released to a Charleston reporter a redacted version of his termination letter which contained false and disparaging remarks that Butler said effectively accuse him of malpractice.
Butler said he believes the release was motivated by more than a Freedom of Information Act request and that the letter intended for him was aimed at a bigger audience.
“At his deposition, Pennington couldn’t recall ever having written a termination letter before,” Butler said. “Why now? Without the letter, the public and Solicitor Wilson would not have been able to read what Pennington wrote about me.”
Pennington countersued for defamation, claiming that Butler falsely told several attorneys that Pennington told him not to file a grievance, inferring that Pennington was covering for Wilson. Pennington also claimed that Butler repeated those accusations to Lawyers Weekly, which published them in an article.
Jennifer Munter Stark of Mount Pleasant, Richard Kammen of Indianapolis, and Maren Chaloupka of Scottsbluff, Nebraska represented Butler
Media outlets report that neither party admitted fault under the Oct. 6 settlement. Butler told Lawyers Weekly that “the settlement speaks for itself.”
SETTLEMENT REPORT — WRONGFUL TERMINATION
Injuries alleged: Lost wages, mental and emotional anguish, humiliation, loss of enjoyment of life
Case name: Butler v. Pennington and Charleston County
Court: U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina
Case No.: 2:15-cv-04455
Judge: Bruce Howe Hendricks
Date of settlement: Oct. 6
Insurance carrier: South Carolina Insurance Reserve Fund and Chubb North America
Attorneys for plaintiff: Jennifer Munter Stark of Mount Pleasant, Richard Kammen of Indianapolis, and Maren Chaloupka of Scottsbluff, Nebraska
Attorneys for defendants: Caroline Cleveland and Bob Conley of Cleveland & Conley in Charleston and Nancy Bloodgood and Lucy Sanders of Mount Pleasant