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Garrard County v. Middleton

Supreme Court of Kentucky

June 15, 2017



          COUNSEL FOR APPELLANTS: John L. Gay Litany Loren Webster Walther, Gay & Mack, PLC

          COUNSEL FOR APPELLEE: Gerry L. Calvert II Calvert Law Group, LLC James Paul Long Jr.



         Garrard County is one of those Kentucky counties that has an elected county jailer but does not operate a county jail. The Garrard Fiscal Court voted before the jailer's election to fix the amount of the jailer's salary for the new term at an amount lower than that set for the incumbent jailer. After the election, the newly elected jailer sued the fiscal court, alleging that it was statutorily powerless to reduce his pay. The trial court ruled that the fiscal court had the authority to increase or reduce the amount of the jailer's salary before the commencement of the jailer's new term in office. Thus, the trial court ruled that the Garrard Fiscal Court had acted properly in reducing the jailer's pay before the commencement of his term. But the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court, holding instead that the General Assembly has specifically enacted a statute that prohibits fiscal courts in counties without jails from reducing the pay of their elected jailer. On discretionary review, we are constrained to agree with the holding of the Court of Appeals. Thus, we affirm.


         The Kentucky Constitution mandates that every county elect a jailer, [1] but it does not require every county to operate a jail. The General Assembly extends to county fiscal courts the discretion to set the county jailer's salary within certain parameters established in the overall statutory framework.

         Garrard County is one of the Kentucky counties that does not operate a jail. In 2006, Kenny Tuggle was re-elected for his third term as Garrard County Jailer. During his tenure, his salary gradually increased over the years he spent in office. Tuggle resigned his post in 2008. At that time he was earning $30, 547.97 per year. The county found someone to fill the two remaining years on Tuggle's unexpired term. Kevin Middleton approached the county judge-executive expressing his interest in the vacant position. Eventually, Middleton agreed to fill the time remaining on Tuggle's term as jailer in exchange for $20, 000 per year.

         Before the 2010 election, the Garrard County Fiscal Court fixed the salary for the county jailer for the ensuing term to be $20, 300.02 per year. After completing Tuggle's term, Middleton ran for jailer and was elected and continued to serve as the Garrard County Jailer. In 2012, Middleton filed suit in circuit court contending that: (1) he was entitled to the difference between the salary he had been paid for fulfilling the expired term and the salary Tuggle received during his tenure as jailer; and (2) as a matter of law, the Garrard County Fiscal Court was statutorily barred from lowering the county jailer's salary before the 2010 election to an amount less than the $30, 547.97 that Tuggle received. Related to his suit, Middleton also requested an award of attorney's fees.

         The trial court granted partial summary judgment to both parties. First, the circuit court ruled that Garrard County was obligated to pay Middleton $30, 547.97 while he completed Tuggle's term. But second, the trial court ruled that the fiscal court was statutorily authorized to reduce the jailer's salary before the commencement of a new term, so Middleton had no continuing entitlement to a minimum salary of at least $30, 547.97. And finally, the trial court denied Middleton's request for attorney's fees. .

         Both parties appealed to the Kentucky Court of Appeals. The appellate panel affirmed the circuit court's ruling that the fiscal court could not reduce the county jailer's salary during the course of an elected term and held that Middleton was entitled to the difference between his pay and Tuggle's. The panel also rejected Middleton's request for attorney's fees. But the Court of Appeals reversed the ruling allowing the fiscal court to reduce the jailer's salary between terms. Relying on Wallace v. King[2], the panel held that the plain language of KRS 441.243(3) prohibits the county jailer who does not operate a full-service jail to receive a salary lower than he received the prior year.

         We granted Garrard County's motion for discretionary review to determine whether KRS 441.245 applies only to mid-term salary alterations or whether it broadly limits a fiscal court's ability to set jailer salaries in a general sense. Because we agree with the Court of Appeals that the plain language of KRS 441.243(3) dictates this admittedly odd, yet not absurd, result, we affirm the ruling below.

         II. ANALYSIS.

         Of the three issues brought before the Court of Appeals, it appears only two of those remain for our consideration on discretionary review. Based on Garrard County's petition for discretionary review, it appears that the county is not challenging both lower-court rulings awarding Middleton backpay based on the mid-term salary adjustment he received for completing Tuggle's term. So we will not undertake analysis of this issue. We address only Garrard County's discretion to establish the jailer's salary in between terms and Middleton's claims for attorney's fees, an issue he re-asserts in his brief.

         A. Standard of Review.

         This case comes before us for review of the trial court's grant of partial summary judgment in favor of both parties. While factual findings shall not be set aside unless clearly erroneous, conclusions of law are reviewed de novo.[3]Here the material facts culminating in the present litigation are undisputed. So this case truly involves only questions of law. As such, we review the decisions below totally under the de novo standard of review.

         B. The Plain Meaning of KRS 441.243(3) is Not Ambiguous.

         First, and most importantly, Garrard County appeals the Court of Appeals' ruling that the text of KRS 441.243(3) prevents the fiscal court from decreasing the county jailer's salary in between elected terms of service. While Middleton maintains that this provision speaks generally to the county's overall ability to set jailer salaries, Garrard County points to the statute's overt reference to KRS 64.527-Kentucky's codification of the "rubber dollar" doctrine-in support of its. point that this salary statute only limits how the fiscal court may operate in the course of a jailer's current term of service. That statute does not, according to the county, impact the fiscal court's power to set the salary as it deems appropriate for future terms. Though KRS 441.245 is the only statute directly referencing the overall salaries for jailers who do not operate full-service jails, the Kentucky Constitution and supporting statutes delineate a clear structure and provide a fixed set of rules for the various possibilities facing fiscal courts.

         Somewhat uniquely, county jailers are specifically referenced in the Kentucky Constitution. Section 99 mandates that every county have an elected jailer irrespective of whether that county maintains a full-service jail. The constitution also goes to some lengths to specify basic terms and ...

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