Cherokee County Courthouse in Murphy, N.C. Frank Taylor / Carolina Public Press
Cherokee County courthouse in Murphy. Frank Taylor / Carolina Public Press

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A lawsuit against Cherokee County by its insurer will be moved to a Cherokee County courtroom, a Wake County judge decided.

The N.C. Counties Liability Property Joint Risk Management Agency sued the county in state court last year after a federal jury awarded $4.6 million in damages to Brian Hogan and his daughter.

The Hogans sued the county in federal court because workers with the county’s Department of Social Services coerced Hogan into signing papers that purported to remove his daughter from his custody. The documents, known as Custody and Visitation Agreements, were later ruled unlawful, and the federal jury ruled that Cherokee DSS violated Hogan’s and his daughter’s constitutional rights.

In its filings last year, the insurer questioned whether it is liable to pay multimillion-dollar awards. Cherokee County’s contract covers “wrongful acts” at $2 million per act, and any verdict or settlement above that amount is to be paid by the county.

Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway concluded earlier this month that Cherokee County is a more convenient venue for those who are parties to the case or are interested in watching the case, and “the case involves actions alleged to have taken place in Cherokee County.”

The Hogan case was just one of many against the county and its officials. The county also settled with Heaven Cordell for $450,000 in September. The Florida woman’s case was the first settled among dozens of other cases filed in federal court with substantially similar circumstances.

All of the children were removed from their parents by DSS workers who said the documents parents signed gave DSS a legal right to take their children. However, a judge never approved the arrangements.

In early December, the county and insurer settled with Molly Cordell for $4 million. While separated from her father and younger sister, she was forced to get a job to pay for her housing and food, but if she had been in the formal foster care system, those costs would have been paid by the government. 

On Dec. 6, the Cherokee County Board of Commissioners voted to pay $2 million of that award, with the insurer paying the rest. County Manager Randy Wiggins said the commissioners unanimously approved a budget revision in early December to pay the county’s portion of the settlement.

Dozens more cases against the county and a variety of former directors, lawyers and workers of its Department of Social Services are winding their way through the federal court system. These workers, along with the parents and children who were unlawfully separated, are included as defendants in the insurance company’s lawsuit. Many of the defendants petitioned the Wake County judge for the change of venue last year.

Since the Hogans won their $4.6 million verdict, former social work supervisor David Hughes pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors and agreed to testify truthfully in all court matters, and former DSS Director Cindy Palmer pleaded guilty to one felony count of obstruction of justice. Former DSS and county attorney Scott Lindsay faces dozens of felony charges related to his work for the agency, which has since ceased using the unlawful Custody and Visitation Agreements.

If the insurer prevails in court to reduce its liability, then the county could bear the cost of tens of millions of dollars related to more than a dozen cases where Cherokee County DSS workers used CVAs to pressure parents into relinquishing custody of their children.

Commissioner Gary Westmoreland said in a public meeting that the overall cost of the DSS’ failures was around $50 million.

Kate Martin

Kate Martin is lead investigative reporter for Carolina Public Press. Email her at kmartin@carolinapublicpress.org.