Hughes v. Oconee County, 2007-UP-461

CourtCourt of Appeals of South Carolina
PartiesAnn H. Hughes, Appellant, v. Oconee County, South Carolina; Ron H. Rabun, individually and Administrator of Oconee County, South Carolina; Bill Rinehart, Marion Lyles, J. Frank Ables, Steve Moore and Tommy Crumpton, as Duly Elected Council Members of Oconee County Council; Bill Rinehart, Marion Lyles, and H. Frank Ables, individually; Kay Olbon, individually and as Human Resources Officer of Oconee County, South Carolina; and Sandra Smith, individually and as the Present Secretary/Administrative Assistant to the Administrator of Oconee County, South Carolina, Respondents
Decision Date11 October 2007
Docket Number2007-UP-461

Ann H. Hughes, Appellant,
v.

Oconee County, South Carolina; Ron H. Rabun, individually and Administrator of Oconee County, South Carolina; Bill Rinehart, Marion Lyles, J. Frank Ables, Steve Moore and Tommy Crumpton, as Duly Elected Council Members of Oconee County Council; Bill Rinehart, Marion Lyles, and H. Frank Ables, individually; Kay Olbon, individually and as Human Resources Officer of Oconee County, South Carolina; and Sandra Smith, individually and as the Present Secretary/Administrative Assistant to the Administrator of Oconee County, South Carolina, Respondents

No. 2007-UP-461

Court of Appeals of South Carolina

October 11, 2007


Unpublished

Submitted October 1, 2007

Appeal from Oconee County James C. Williams, Jr., Circuit Court Judge

Larry C. Brandt, of Walhalla, for Appellant.

Thomas A. Bright, of Ogletree, of Greenville, for Respondent.

PER CURIAM:

Ann H. Hughes (Hughes) appeals the grant of summary judgment with regard to her breach of contract claim against Oconee County, South Carolina; Bill Rinehart, Marion Lyles, H. Frank Ables, Steve Moore and Tommy Crumpton, as Duly Elected Council Members of Oconee County Council (collectively "County"). The trial court granted County's summary judgment motion based on the doctrine of avoidable consequences. We reverse.[1]

FACTS

In December of 2000, Hughes began working as the Oconee County Supervisor. She maintained this position until Governor Mark Sanford suspended her in May 2003, after criminal charges were brought against her in Oconee and Pickens Counties for embezzlement and misconduct in office. Hughes remained suspended from office until April 2004, when, pursuant to a deal offered by Oconee County, the charges were dismissed. While charges were pending against her in Oconee County, criminal charges were initiated against her in Anderson County for misuse of a telephone at Clemson University during her previous employment. Hughes was acquitted of the Anderson County charge in February 2005.

Hughes signed a new employment contract (Contract) with Oconee County on April 19, 2004, where she would be retained "as a consultant on the Americans with Disabilities Act for a period of three (3) years beginning May 1, 2004 and ending April 30, 2007." This Contract included health insurance and state retirement benefits for her employment term. Additionally, the contract stated:

Oconee County South Carolina will pay Ann Hamilton Hughes the sum of $50,000 per year payable on a bi-weekly basis at the rate of $1,923.08 for the three (3) year term. Ann Hamilton Hughes may be terminated for cause for any future violation of the laws of the United States, the State of South Carolina or ordinances, policies and procedures of Oconee County and is subject to all such laws, ordinances, policies and procedures
As part and parcel of the consideration of this contract of employment, Ann Hamilton Hughes will execute a general release of liability releasing Oconee County, all County employees and elected officials for any causes of action she might have through the date of the release, including past salary and attorney fees and costs

Under the Contract, Hughes's duties were to: (1) perform written assessments of all County buildings and Oconee County School buildings for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); (2) execute such other duties concerning the ADA as required by the Chief Administrative Officer of Oconee County; and (3) answer only to the Chief Administrative Officer of Oconee County. In return, the County agreed to pay for any training, travel, lodging and meals with connection to training necessary and incident to perform ADA assessments, and provide office equipment and materials necessary for the performance of her work.

Hughes submitted her resignation as County Supervisor on April 20, 2004, as well as a signed release, which provided:

FOR THE SOLE CONSIDERATION of the employment of Ann Hamilton Hughes as a consultant on the Americans with Disabilities Act for a period of three (3) years beginning May 1, 2004 and ending April 30, 2007 pursuant to a binding contract with Oconee County, South Carolina at the sum of $50,000 per year payable on a bi-weekly basis at the rate of $1,923.08 for the three (3) year term, the receipt and sufficiency whereof is hereby acknowledged, the undersigned hereby releases and forever discharges Oconee County, all County employees and elected officials for any causes of action Ann Hamilton Hughes might have through the date of the release, including past salary and attorney fees and costs, their successors, heirs executors, administrators, agents and assigns, who might be liable or who might be claimed to be liable, none of whom admit any liability to the undersigned but all expressly deny any liability, from any and all claims, demands, damages, actions, causes of action or suits of any kind or nature whatsoever, and particularly on account of any injuries, known and unknown, both to person and property, which have resulted or may in the future develop from the arrest of Ann Hamilton Hughes for which she was found "not guilty" and/or the charges being dismissed, with prejudice.
The undersigned hereby declares that the terms of this settlement have been completely read and are fully understood and voluntarily accepted for the purpose of making a full and final compromise adjustment and settlement of any and all claims, disputed or otherwise, on account of the injuries and damages above mentioned, and for the express purpose of precluding forever any further or additional claims arising out of the aforesaid accident and/or injury. As this release relates to employees and elected officials, this release is conditioned however, that ALL copies of investigative materials collected from Ms. Hughes computer, which could in any way be considered personal, will be delivered to her attorneys on or before May 1, 2004. No such investigative file in either and/or offices shall be disseminated by either entity or individually. In the event any person elected or employed by Oconee County, who has direct or indirect access, disseminates any such personal material, Ann Hamilton Hughes may institute civil litigation in this regard and the civil release executed by her in consideration for the contract of employment shall not be a bar to such action. All limitations of actions are tolled conditioned on non-disclosure of personal information and data.
The undersigned hereby accepts this three (3) year employment contract as set forth herein as full and final settlement for any and all claims and injuries except as stated hereinabove.

In May 2004, Hughes commenced employment as a consultant with Oconee County under the Contract. Ron Rabun, the Administrator of Oconee County, terminated Hughes on June 2, 2005, in a letter stating:

As you know, your personnel file as ADA Coordinator contains numerous counseling and disciplinary actions addressing performance and attendance issues prior to this final action. Therefore, the record will show that progressive disciplinary measures have been followed to justify this final action.
Consequently, your employment with the County will be terminated on Friday, June 3, 2005.

On June 3, 2005, Hughes filed a complaint alleging: (1) breach of contract; (2) abuse of process; (3) guaranty; (4) tortious interference with contractual relations; and (5) civil conspiracy. She amended her complaint on June 30, 2005. The County filed a motion to dismiss or strike certain portions of Hughes's complaint on August 2, 2005, and filed an answer to the amended complaint on September 22, 2005, declaring Hughes's termination was for cause.

The trial court dismissed Hughes's guaranty cause of action on September 27, 2005. Hughes subsequently voluntarily dismissed all other claims except breach of contract.

The County moved for summary judgment on May 5, 2006, arguing Hughes, in her deposition testimony, established she made no efforts to mitigate her damages by seeking other employment. Thus, the County contended no dispute existed on the issue of Hughes's efforts to mitigate her damages. At the July 31, 2006, motion hearing, the County referred to this relevant portion of Hughes's deposition:

Q: Let me change direction on you again a little bit. What are you doing today?
A: Nothing.
Q: What I mean by that is, are you employed?
A: No.
Q: Have you sought employment?
A: I asked about a part-time job and never heard back from them.
Q: From who?
A: At the Booksmith in Seneca, Tricia Lightweis.
Q: That was the Seneca?
A: Booksmith.
Q: Booksmith?
A: Uh-huh (affirmative).
Q: When would you have asked her?
A: Oh, gosh, shortly after I was terminated.
Q: Have you sought any other work other than that one position?
A: In short, no.
Q: Did every occasion that you went out produce a negative reaction?
A: I tried not to notice.
Q: So you don't know, is that what you're saying?
A: No. What I'm saying is, I tried to ignore it, the whispers, the glances, and the what I'm trying to say to you is, in essence, this quasi exile of mine is self-imposed, yes, but it is was it something that I sat down and determined that I was going to do? No.
Q: Was there anything that happened within the community, subsequent to the termination of your contract, that led you to conclude that this self-imposed exile was necessary?
A: Until this happened, until the termination in 2004, I was going out to dinner with my husband. I went car shopping. I went to Belk's. I visited friends, from time to time. There were no it's impossible for me to tell you how often, but it did happen; not as frequently as it did prior to 2003. But I can tell you,
...

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