BRIGHAM CITY — A civil rights case in which two falsely arrested black men won monetary settlements from three police agencies isn’t over yet after all.
Attorneys for Box Elder County have filed papers in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City asking to overturn the county’s March settlement with Nehemiah McFarlin and Atoa Fox.
The county argues the settlement’s acceptance by the men failed to comply with court rules, and they allege the deal as filed is being used by the plaintiffs’ attorneys to pad their award for attorneys’ fees.
In a separate motion, county attorneys are challenging the $225,595 the plaintiffs’ lawyers are seeking for attorney’s fees and costs.
McFarlin and Fox were driving home to California from Pocatello, Idaho, over the holidays on Dec. 14, 2016. McFarlin’s Camaro slid off the snowy road near Portage and had some front-end damage.
Police converged on the car and arrested the two men, who were students and football players at Idaho State University. Police suspected they had robbed a bank in Malad, Idaho, earlier that day.
The men spent the night in the Box Elder County Jail before they were released. A black man from Ogden was arrested weeks later and convicted in the Malad robbery.
In their 2018 lawsuit against Box Elder County, Oneida County, Idaho, and the Utah Highway Patrol, Fox and McFarlin alleged they were victims of false arrest, excessive force and other civil rights violations.
“Other than being ‘black,’ neither McFarlin nor Fox matched the description of the robbery participant,” the lawsuit said.
By spring this year, the men had accepted settlement offers from all three defendants.
First, Fox accepted $5,000 from Oneida County. Then the state of Utah, representing UHP, paid $21,000 to be split by the two.
In March, the two accepted settlements of $5,100 apiece from Box Elder.
Finally, McFarlin settled with Oneida County for $10,000.
The court ratified the Box Elder settlement on March 12. But in its May 29 motion to overturn the settlement, the county said the men’s attorneys never properly accepted the settlement because they slightly changed the wording of the settlement document. Wording limiting attorneys’ fees to “costs now accrued” at that time had been removed.
That change allowed the plaintiffs’ attorneys to claim another $9,700 in attorneys’ fees, which otherwise would not have been granted, the county argued.
“Thus, there was never a ‘meeting of the minds,’ and the judgment should be vacated because the ... settlement agreement is void,” said the county’s motion, submitted by R. Blake Hamilton, a lawyer hired by the county’s statewide risk pool.
If the court grants the request, the litigation between the two men and the county would resume.
Regarding attorneys’ fees, the county argued the $225,000 “is an outrageous request.”
Box Elder “did not acknowledge any wrongdoing and did not change any policies or practices as a result of this lawsuit,” the county said. “Thus, plaintiffs’ degree of success in this case does not justify an award of fees and costs that is 43 times greater than their individual payouts.”
The lead attorney for McFarlin and Fox, Bron Rammell of Idaho Falls, objected that the county did not try to undo the settlement until 18 weeks after it was finalized.
In his response filed in court, Rommell said the county “objected to the acceptance based on an accidental discrepancy in language which was readily apparent” as early as Jan. 18.
He said nullifying the settlement would be “highly prejudicial” to the men because they could not undo their settlement with UHP and Oneida County, leaving them to face “newly resurrected claims that any and all wrongful conduct was done by the Oneida County defendants.”
The bank robbery investigation was headed by Oneida County, Box Elder argued.
“Box Elder County’s role in the arrest, vehicle search, and investigation was that of an assisting deputy. Nobody disputes that this was Oneida County’s investigation,” Hamilton wrote in his motion. “The assisting officer is not required to second-guess the requesting officer’s probable cause determination, nor is he required to independently determine that probable cause exists.”
He said the settlement was a “nuisance” amount and that the county did not admit any wrongdoing in the agreement.
Rammell countered that the Box Elder attorneys apparently had no problem with the March 12 settlement judgment until they saw the plaintiffs’ legal fees request April 29.