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Louisville council member’s defamation case could cost taxpayers $100,000

Louisville City Hall
Roberto Roldan
Louisville City Hall houses Metro Council chambers and offices.

Last month, a jury found Louisville Metro Council Member Donna Purvis defamed her former legislative aide. Her defense could cost taxpayers more than $100,000.

Invoice receipts obtained by LPM News show Louisville Metro has so far been billed about $108,000 by the law firm contracted to defend District 5 Democrat Donna Purvis against allegations she lied about a former staffer.

The lawsuit was filed in May 2022 by Denise Bentley, Purvis’ former legislative aide. Bentley accused Purvis of illegally firing her and then launching a smear campaign against her, telling people she stole money from the city by falsifying time sheets and misappropriating funds. A jury ruled Purvis’ statements were not true and awarded Bentley $1 in punitive damages.

Robyn Smith, an attorney who represented Bentley in the trial, said Thursday she was disappointed to learn how much the trial would cost taxpayers

“When someone who is in power, and other people listen to, says things about you that aren’t true, you are very, very vulnerable,” Smith said. “It does sometimes take going the distance and getting a jury to absolve you, but when that happens the person who is wrong is the one who should have to pay up.”

Portrait of Donna Purvis in front of an American flag and Louisville Jefferson County seal
Metro Council Member Donna Purvis of District 5

Purvis was represented in the case by Phillips Parker Orberson & Arnett. The Jefferson County Attorney’s Office contracted with the firm because of a conflict of interest. They were already representing both Bentley and Purvis in an ongoing lawsuit brought by Dino’s Food Mart.

A spreadsheet of invoices sent from the firm to the County Attorney’s Office show Purvis’ lawyers billed the city for $96,840 in attorney’s fees between May 2022 and April 11, 2024. The city was also billed for $11,455 in other expenses, like court reporter fees.

The total cost of Purvis’ defense will likely exceed $108,295 because the invoices provided by the County Attorney’s Office do not cover attorneys fees and other costs from the five-day trial, which took place late last month.

Purvis’ lawyer Katie Watts said the cost of the Metro Council member’s defense corresponds to the scale of the case. In addition to defamation, Bentley’s lawsuit initially included claims of retaliation and violation of her free speech rights, which a judge dismissed last August.

“I don’t think it's fair to say that all of these fees and expenses are solely related to the defamation claim,” she said. “We prevailed on getting the wrongful termination and retaliation claims dismissed on summary judgment, so I think the fees were very well spent in that regard.”

Watts pointed out that the initial lawsuit named Louisville Metro as a defendant, whom she was also representing.

Attorneys for Purvis and Bentley had to attend about a dozen depositions, where they questioned potential witnesses on what they knew about Bentley’s firing and Purvis’ statements about her former aide.

In her lawsuit, Bentley alleged Purvis fired her in January 2022 after she expressed she would not support Purvis’ bid for reelection. Bentley said Purvis demanded to know why. Among other reasons, Bentley said she took issue with Purvis publicly referring to her as a “redbone,” a “derogatory term for an African-American with lighter skin or a person of mixed race.”

After her firing, Bentley alleged Purvis told residents and other Metro Council members that Bentley was being investigated for stealing time, which was false, and had Bentley flagged by City Hall as a security threat.

Bentley argued she was wrongfully terminated for exercising her First Amendment rights, that she was retaliated against and that Purvis started defamatory rumors about her.

The jury rules solely on the defamation claim, awarding Bentley $1 in punitive damages.

Smith said, for Bentley, the case was never about money. It was about setting the record straight and restoring her reputation. In 2002, Bentley became the first Black woman to be elected president of the Louisville Board of Alderman, the precursor to the present day local legislative body. She later served on the Metro Council.

The punitive damages awarded by the jury showed they agreed with her assertion that few people actually believed Purvis’ defamatory statements, Bentley said.

“I want to thank the jury for understanding how important it is to hold public officials accountable when they knowingly harm citizens in this community,” she said in a statement following the verdict. “The jurors’ words of compassion and empathy as they left jury service have reinforced to me that justice can be accomplished.”

Watts, who represented Purvis in the case, said she didn’t want to comment on the jury’s decision.

In order for the jury to award punitive damages in Kentucky, the person bringing the lawsuit must prove the defendant acted with “oppression, fraud or malice.” State law requires local governments to defend city employees and public officials in lawsuits. But cities and counties can demand reimbursement if, among other reasons, an employee “acted or failed to act because of fraud, malice, or corruption.”

Betley said she thinks this means Louisville Metro could demand Purvis reimburse it for the total cost of her defense in this case. Watts said she thinks that’s a “poor interpretation” of the jury’s verdict and state law, but the decision isn’t up to her.

LPM asked the Jefferson County Attorney’s Office spokesperson Josh Abner whether the city plans to seek reimbursement from Purvis. He did not say whether officials have made a decision on that yet.

“As we do with all cases, the Jefferson County Attorney’s Office will provide legal advice to Louisville Metro on any next steps in this case,” he said in a statement.

For Bentley, the next steps are clear.

Smith said her client is planning to file a “bill of costs” with the court, seeking to recover costs for things like court reporters and process servers. The prevailing party in a defamation case isn’t entitled to attorneys fees under Kentucky law.

But Smith said Bentley doesn’t want to be reimbursed at taxpayers’ expense. Smith said she hopes she can sit down with Purvis and the city to come to a better arrangement.

“I envision that being a very thoughtful conversation, where everyone attends with an open mind and tries to fashion a just result,” Smith said.

She said if the city insists on paying the bill of costs on Purvis’ behalf, then “that’ll be a decision that needs to be made at that point in time.”

Bentley is also planning to appeal the judge’s earlier ruling to throw out the First Amendment and retaliation claims.

Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL. Email Roberto at rroldan@lpm.org.

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