Safford settles police officer lawsuit over benefit pay

By Jon Johnson

SAFFORD A nearly two-year-old lawsuit between several Safford Police officers – both current and former – against the city of Safford has been settled with a $330,000 payout to the officers.

The city will pay the plaintiffs $110,000 annually for three years, starting no later than Nov. 30. Each plaintiff will receive a check for $7,333.33 at each payment, which means they will each receive a total of $22,000 after three years.

The lawsuit was filed against the city in March 2016 after it eliminated a health insurance subsidy for its employees that maxed out at about $425 per month for its family plan, according to Safford City Manager Horatio Skeete. The city did provide an alternative benefit package, but the officers joined together and filed a complaint against the city.

“After two years of deliberations, discussions (and) negotiations, we bring to you (the council) a settlement agreement that everybody has signed off on for a total of $330,000 to be paid in three annual installments of $110,000,” Skeete said. 

The officers, including Jason and Shawn Dolan, Wendell Norton, Lance Shurtz, William (Bill) Wren, Wade Sanders, Luke Arbizo, Bradley Reynolds, Sherri O’Neal, Delores Thomas, Brian Avila, Jeremiah French, Herschel Medlin, Glenn Orr and Houston T. Cluff, all deemed the prior benefit package they had as an entitlement for their jobs.

The officers were represented by Edmundo Robaina, a senior partner in the Phoenix law firm Robaina & Kresin PLLC, which specializes in employment law. Gila Valley Central reached out to Robaina, but he did not return our calls in a timely fashion.

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Valley Central: Safford Mayor Jason Kouts said he hoped to avoid a similar situation in the future.

Skeete said the decision to alter the benefits package was done because the old one had more than $2.5 million in liabilities to the city and it was determined by the city’s attorney, William Sims, that it wasn’t an entitlement and that the city could modify the benefit. Retired employees who were receiving the subsidy were allowed to continue to receive it, and current employees at that time were offered an alternative benefit package.

While undergoing litigation, another case involving judges across the state of Arizona challenged the state’s decision to remove a benefit that was also considered not an entitlement.

“Ironically, those judges sat among themselves, reviewed the case and agreed that it was an entitlement,” Skeete said.

With case law now on their side, the plaintiffs’ case proceeded much stronger than it had been before, prompting the city to offer a settlement.

Safford Mayor Jason Kouts said he wanted to make sure that another divide such as this one doesn’t happen in the future.

“I never want to get us there again,” he said. “So, if we can learn from mistakes and proceed forward . . . err on the side of grace always.”