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Mon, June 24

Vicente v. Prescott suit ends with settlement

PRESCOTT -  A lawsuit that has spanned nearly three years and has cost the City of Prescott about $190,000 in legal fees has ended, with no monetary award to either side.

In unanimous action Tuesday, the Prescott City Council approved an out-of-court settlement, which concludes the lawsuit without any money changing hands between the two parties. Likewise, both parties are responsible to pay their own legal fees, and agree to give up their right of appeal.

The lawsuit dates back to December 2011, when John Paul (J.P.) Vicente, a Prescott Fire Captain and acting battalion chief, made eight employment-related allegations against the city. The suit claimed that the city attempted to force Vicente into early retirement after he had complained about harassment to two union members and then advocated for a female firefighter over claims of sexual harassment by a supervisor.

The city maintained that Vicente frequently traded shifts with other firefighters in order to accommodate the demands of his other businesses.

"In some cases Vicente would pay other firefighters in cash for working his shifts rather than working one of their shifts in exchange," stated the background in an August order by a U.S. District Court Judge.

City officials reportedly instructed Vicente to stop the practice, but when he did not, Vicente said city officials tried in January 2011 to get him to sign a disciplinary agreement that would have resulted in his resignation by June 2011. The agreement also included an option for early retirement.

Although he did not sign the disciplinary agreement, Vicente did enter the DROP (Deferred Retirement Option Plan, a 60-month program during which there are no employer contributions to retirement and no further years of service are credited) in January 2011, according to the order.

The suit also had claimed that the disciplinary action occurred after Vicente, a member of the United Yavapai Firefighters Local 3066, had made the complaints about harassment, and that the city had violated his constitutional right to free speech.

In May 2012, U.S. District Judge David G. Campbell eliminated several key points of the lawsuit, and this past August, he ruled in favor of the city on three other counts, including Vicente's free speech claim and the request that the judge rescind his "forced election" to retire.

That left only one count - Vicente's claim of defamation by the city.

On Sept. 9, the City Council discussed the lawsuit in a closed-door executive session.

Then, on Oct. 15, Vicente's attorney filed a notice of settlement, stating that the lawsuit has been "voluntarily resolved," and that the case would be dismissed upon formal approval by the City of Prescott.

The settlement agreement that the council approved this week states that neither side admits to any wrongdoing in the matter, and that neither side would pay any amount to the other side.

The Prescott City Attorney's department reports that the city's legal costs with its contract attorney James Jellison totals about $189,000, which does not include the billing for September.

After Tuesday's meeting, City Attorney Jon Paladini noted that the judge's earlier rulings had "really gutted (Vicente's) case." But, he said, the city might have faced $50,000 or $60,000 more in legal costs to take the matter to trial.

With the settlement, he said, "It's over, it's done."

Meanwhile, Paladini said his department has taken steps in the past two years to avoid such costly legal defenses in the future. For instance, he noted that the city joined the Arizona Municipal Risk Retention Pool in 2013 to replace its previous practice of absorbing much of its own liability risk through self-insurance.

"If a case like this were filed today, it would have been covered by the risk pool," Paladini said. "That would cover all of the legal fees."

Neither Vicente nor his attorney Michael Pearson responded to requests for comment Tuesday or Wednesday.

Follow Cindy Barks on Twitter @Cindy_Barks.

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