Ex-UGA employee awarded $1.3 million
Greg Land, special to the Fulton County Daily Report
A federal jury has awarded a former project director for the University of Georgia almost $1.3 million for her claims that her former boss falsely accused her of stealing state-owned equipment, resulting in her arrest, destroying her career and sending her into a suicidal depression.
The plaintiff, Terrie Buckner, worked for UGA administering a grant-funded program that trained early-childcare instructors; her boss was Karen Shetterly, head of UGA’s Grants and Contracts Department.
According to court documents, the university in 2004 withdrew as sponsor of the program, and Shetterly told Buckner that the state would no longer pay to lease the program’s Lawrenceville office space. Buckner and two co-workers returned property belonging to UGA to the university, but there remained more office supplies, audio-visual equipment and other property that belonged to the program. On June 30, 2004, Buckner and the two co-workers stored the supplies in their homes, with Buckner placing the majority of the goods in her garage until the program could be matched with a new administrative partner.
The following month, according to the documents, UGA police were alerted that someone was selling UGA-owned property on eBay. One of the co-workers, Tammy Brookover, was found to have offered some items for sale online. She did not implicate Buckner in any wrongdoing, but the officers went to Buckner’s home and interviewed her.
Buckner then wrote an e-mail to Shetterly, telling her what had happened and asking that she clear up the situation with the police. Instead, according to court filings, Shetterly “was adamant that there was no authorization for Buckner to have this stuff for safekeeping.”
Brookover paid a misdemeanor fine for selling some of the property, but Buckner was arrested on multiple felony counts. She was cleared 10 months later, after Gwinnett County District Attorney Daniel Porter reviewed the case and dropped the charges, said Buckner’s attorney, A. Lee Parks of Parks, Chesin & Walbert.
“They had her charged with 10 felony counts,” said Parks. “She was facing 100 years in prison.”
“The DA looked at it and realized that was nothing to prosecute Buckner for, and that Shetterly should have told the UGA police what had happened,” said Parks, who handled the case with associate Eleanor Mixon Attwood and Buckner’s original attorney, Rome sole practitioner Stephen F. Lanier.
Buckner, who had lined up another state job and was also an adjunct professor at Shorter College, lost both those positions, said Parks.
“She got a letter calling her a ‘disgrace’ from one the state’s attorneys; she couldn’t go to church, she was considering suicide. … It just tore her life up; she became a recluse,” said Parks.
After the charges were dropped, UGA still refused to clear her name, said Parks.
“Nobody’ll touch her in the public sector; she can never work in any area where grant money’s involved again,” he said.
In September 2006, Buckner brought suit against Shetterly, the chief of UGA’s police department and two of its investigators in Georgia’s Middle District, claiming false arrest and malicious prosecution. Judge Clay D. Land dismissed the claims against the university police officers on the grounds of sovereign immunity but allowed the case against Shetterly to proceed.
On Oct. 9, after a three-day trial, the jury awarded Buckner $1,265,058 in compensatory damages, and $10,000 in punitive damages.
“UGA offered nothing until the last day of trial,” said Parks. “Then they offered $50,000. … The judge even urged them to settle, but they wanted to try the case.”
Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker appointed Athens attorney Bryan K. Webb to handle Shetterly’s defense. He has filed a motion asking Land to set aside the judgment or, in the alternative, grant a new trial. Parks has filed a motion seeking a total of $326,257 in attorneys’ fees and expenses.
A spokesman for the attorney general said that because the litigation is ongoing, there will be no comment from the defense on the case.
The case is Buckner v. Shetterly No. 3:06-CV-79, U.S. Dist. Mid. Ga.