Denton County commissioners recently approved a contract hiring a new outside law firm to appeal a federal judgment in a lawsuit about the work environment in the district attorney’s office.
Sidney Powell, a Dallas-based attorney who specializes in federal appeals, will represent Denton County in the case involving Nadiya Williams-Boldware.
The case began in April 2009 when Williams-Boldware was working as an attorney in the misdemeanor department of the Denton County District Attorney’s Office.
According to past interviews, Williams-Boldware, who is black, was shocked when co-worker Cary Piel made racially charged remarks about a black woman as they were preparing to prosecute her criminal mischief case.
Williams-Boldware had said she was the only African-American working in the office at the time.
The suit also alleged John Rentz, a felony prosecutor and sometime partner of Piel, expressing the same sentiment as Piel and later harassing Williams-Boldware.
Susan Piel, a misdemeanor trial chief, was named in the suit as Williams-Boldware’s supervisor. Williams-Boldware accused Susan Piel, who is married to Cary Piel, of failing to protect her from the remarks.
Ryan Calvert, Susan Piel’s brother, was also named in the suit and accused of harassing Williams-Boldware.
According to the original lawsuit, Calvert attended an office birthday party for Williams-Boldware on Oct. 29, 2009, when he allegedly made comments referring to sensitivity classes Cary Piel and Rentz were forced to attend because of their alleged discriminatory remarks earlier in the year.
Later on, Williams-Boldware admitted in a sworn deposition that Calvert did not attend her birthday party and she did not actually hear him say anything about her.
Calvert is now an assistant district attorney in Brazos County.
“Because I had no involvement in the case which is now apparently being appealed, and because I do not work for Denton County, I don’t have any comment or reaction to their decision to appeal,” he said.
The case ended up in front of a federal jury last June. The jury ruled in favor of Williams-Boldware in her claims that she toiled in a hostile work environment and was denied promotions because of her race.
In June, a jury awarded Williams-Boldware $170,000 for past mental distress, $170,000 for past physical pain and suffering, and $170,000 for future mental distress and damage to her reputation. A federal judge later cut the award to $170,000, ruling the law did not support her claims in two out of three instances in which jurors awarded her money.
“The district court made significant errors in its application of the law in this case, and we will seek to reverse the judgment on appeal,” Powell said. “Ultimately, the county should prevail.”
Shortly after the jury’s decision last June, Denton County District Attorney Paul Johnson fired all four named in the suit.
Powell was hired during the commissioners’ executive session on New Year’s Day.
Precinct 1 Commissioner Hugh Coleman said the Jan. 1 meeting was generally more of a ceremonial day and was not usual for the court.
He cast the lone vote against hiring Powell.
“I thought it would be a better course for us to attempt to settle this matter before we went off and spent potentially another $100,000,” Coleman said. “I know there has been a lot of external debate as to the legitimacy of the suit and our chances on appeal, but regardless, I would like to stop the hemorrhaging of attorney fees by the county and put this matter behind us.”
County Judge Mary Horn had no comment on the appeal.
“The Boldware case is still an ongoing case,” she said. “Ongoing litigation has to receive no comment. It’s not over until it’s over.”
Neither of the Piels nor Rentz responded to requests for comment.
William-Boldware’s attorney, Bill Trantham, said in a recent interview that the county lost and is not happy. He said paying the new lawyer will allow officials to say that they went as far as possible to save county taxpayers money. If they pay Powell less than the damages and she wins, it would be cheaper, he said. Trantham was surprised the county changed lawyers and said he didn’t think there was anything to appeal.
“Everyone has a right to appeal,” he said. “I do not want to see lawyers not make a fee, so I wish Sidney good luck and a good fee.”
According to the county auditor’s website, Powell was paid $65,000 on Jan. 15 to represent the county.
In representing the county, Powell replaces Thomas Brandt of Dallas firm Fanning, Harper, Martinson, Brandt & Kutchin PC. Attempts to reach Brandt for comment were not successful.
Denton County has paid Brandt’s firm a total of $210,230 since 2008, according to county officials.
Williams-Boldware, who has worked with Denton County since February 2007, now works in the Child Protective Services division of the district attorney’s office.
The county is appealing in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
MEGAN GRAY can be reached at 940-566-6885. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
BJ LEWIS can be reached at 940-566-6875. His e-mail address is email@example.com.