County settles lawsuit with teen who claimed magistrate coerced her

The federal lawsuit filed by a 17-year-old Blount County girl and her mother against Blount County government, former Blount County magistrate Dustin Hatcher and Circuit Court Clerk Tom Hatcher has been settled.

The county will pay $45,000. The suit alleged that then magistrate Dustin Hatcher photographed the teen in lingerie he had coerced her to wear in his office.

The settlement means that the county, Tom Hatcher and Dustin Hatcher are free from civil liability and makes no judgement as to the truth of the allegations. Dustin Hatcher still could face possible criminal charges, depending on the outcome of an investigation by state authorities.

The girl had been charged with a juvenile offense in late spring. The suit says that Hatcher called the girl "on or about December 1," and she returned to his office where he ordered her to change into lingerie, took photos of her in the lingerie and of her bare breasts as she changed out of it.

On Dec. 1, her mother came to the Blount County Justice Center to file a complaint with Sheriff James Berrong, and he turned the investigation over to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. Dustin Hatcher tendered his resignation on Saturday, Dec. 2.

The girl’s mother retained Knoxville attorney Gregg Isaacs, and he filed a federal lawsuit on her behalf on Dec. 15.
Blount County Mayor Jerry Cunningham said that he has authority to settle suits up to $50,000. The mayor said when he started speaking with the girl’s mother prior to the suit being filed on Dec. 15, he also spoke with all 21 commissioners individually to get their input. They all agreed that he should reach out to the mother and her daughter.

"I wasn’t quite comfortable without commission input because of the openness I’m trying to create with cooperation with the commissioners," Cunningham said. "We had decided to be proactive and reach out to the family on a moral basis."

The mayor talked with the mother several times before they hired Isaacs and filed suit. "She never told me they had a lawyer and were going to file a lawsuit," Cunningham said.

Cunningham, the county attorney and the county risk manager met with Isaacs on Dec. 27 and worked out a settlement. Cunningham emphasized that he again took the matter to the commissioners, speaking with all 21 for their advice before the settlement was sent to Judge Dale Young for approval on Wednesday, Jan. 10.

Cunningham said that because the 17-year-old is a minor, the judge had to approve any settlement.
The commissioners felt compassion for the girl, as did Cunningham, he said.

"I’m the father of a daughter, and I have a granddaughter, and my heart went out to this child in this situation and that, without exception, was the feeling of 21 commissioners," he said.

The mayor said that during his years as a practicing attorney, he did a lot of juvenile cases. As U.S. Attorney for Eastern Tennessee, he said he attended several seminars. "One seminar stuck with me all these years on how these experiences can scar a child even into later adulthood. It concerned me on a moral basis," he said.

Cunningham said on a legal basis his gut feeling was the county didn’t have legal liability, but he discussed this at length with the county attorney and risk management assessor.

"It was ‘iffy’ whether there was any liability on the part of the county," Cunningham said, "but if they (the plaintiffs) had managed to get it to a jury on a question of lack of proper supervision or one of the other issues raised in the lawsuit, I think the jury could have very well been sympathetic with the girl and awarded more money than the figure they settled for."

Cunningham said that he thought the settlement was in the best interest of Blount County and that it was a "good settlement within bad parameters."

"Those kinds of accusations are always bad. That’s the bad parameters I’m talking about," he said. "I’m not happy about spending $45,000 of Risk Management money on anything, but those are calls the folks of Blount County elected me to make, and I stand by my decision to make this call. I certainly appreciated the input from all the commissioners and the advice of the county attorney and the Risk Management people."

The money will be held in an account with the Blount County Clerk and Master’s Office until the girl turns 18. The money came from the Risk Management fund, which is maintained to cover the deductible amount on the county’s liability coverage for these kinds of matters. The county is self-insured up to $250,000.

Cunningham said he and the county attorney only negotiated on behalf of the county. He said that upon reaching a settlement on behalf of the county, however, Isaacs indicated he did not wish to pursue the case further against the other defendants, Tom Hatcher, or his son, Dustin Hatcher.

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