The city of Dunwoody has spent more than $400,000 on legal services related to employment matters within the Dunwoody Police Department, according to invoices obtained by Reporter Newspapers.
In October of 2020, the Dunwoody City Council approved a contract with the law firm Elarbee, Thompson, Sapp, & Wilson to provide legal assistance with a lawsuit and complaint related to issues with former Dunwoody Police Department Lt. Fidel Espinoza. Earlier in 2020, multiple officers accused Espinoza of sexual harassment, including claims that he demanded sexual favors for work benefits and solicited nude photos.
Before the contract approval, the city had reportedly paid the firm nearly $153,000 to defend Dunwoody in a lawsuit from former police officer Roger Halstead, who alleged that Espinoza repeatedly sexually harassed him, as well as other complaints. Civilian Transport Officer Brian Bolden – who is currently on administrative leave for allegedly violating a public criticism policy – also alleged that Espinoza sexually harassed and bullied him. DPD Chief Billy Grogan later issued a report that admitted Espinoza did send improper, sexual messages to officers and employees, but claimed he did not harass or coerce them.
According to city spokesperson Jennifer Boettcher, as of Feb. 10, 2022, the city had paid Elarbee $422,417 since May 2020, but not all of that cost is related to lawsuits or complaints involving Espinoza.
A records request of the invoices from May 2020 to Feb. 11, 2022 revealed that the city has paid the law firm $408,706.25 for employment-related matters with the Dunwoody Police Department. Most of the invoices were heavily redacted and did not specify if they pertained to a case or issue related to Espinoza.
Out of the invoices, three did not appear to be directly related to cases or complaints involving Espinoza. That includes a $3,000 invoice for preparing and conducting employee anti-harassment training; a separate $916 invoice related to harassment training; and a third $714.50 invoice related to a possible COVID-19 vaccination incentive policy.
An engagement letter sent from Elarbee to the city in 2020 states that the contract was created to assist with Halstead’s lawsuit and a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint from Bolden, as well as issues related to former police officers Bryan Castellanos and Austin Handle. Castellanos also alleged that Espinoza sexually harassed him and filed suit against the city on Feb. 17. Handle, who alleged he was fired from the department for speaking up about officer misconduct, recently was granted unemployment benefits by a state employment board.
“This letter acknowledges that our Firm will provide legal services to the City of Dunwoody … with regard to the above-referenced matters, as well as with other labor, employment, and benefits-related matters as may be requested by the City from time to time (including assisting in the transition of/and or handling non-covered issues relating to the Austin Handle and Bryan Castellanos matters),” reads the engagement letter.
The contract with Elarbee was not meant to exceed one year from the date of approval, according to the contract, but the firm has continued to represent the city after that date.
“The city originally engaged Elarbee, Thompson, Sapp & Wilson in October 2020 as costs exceeded the threshold requiring City Council authorization,” said city spokesperson Jennifer Boettcher in an email. “Since then, GIRMA (the Georgia Interlocal Risk Management Agency) has been designated as the insurance carrier of the city, and Elarbee was designated by GIRMA to be the attorney to consolidate all litigation. Therefore, a contract extension was not needed.”
Boettcher said that to date $98,904.44 of the total amount paid to Elarbee has been reimbursed by insurance claims.
“Our reimbursement efforts continue,” she said. “We’re unable to comment on the cases, as some are ongoing.”