Two high-ranking El Paso County Sheriff's employees are threatening to sue the county for $400,000 over a clerical error that revealed personal information to a Colorado Springs weekly newspaper.
The county rejected their demand as "outrageous," contending that sheriff's Lt. Bill Huffor and his wife, Janet Huffor, the Sheriff's Chief of Staff, have failed to demonstrate that they've been harmed by a county employee mistakenly sending unredacted copies of their personnel files to the Colorado Springs Independent in response to an open records request.
When the county learned of the mistake, staff immediately contacted the reporter, Pam Zubeck, and The Independent confirmed that it would not publish the personal information and the email containing the details would be destroyed, County Attorney Amy Folsom said in a letter, dated Tuesday, responding to the Huffors' demand.
The same day of the accidental disclosure, the county also took the precaution of enrolling the Huffors in LifeLock, an identity theft protection service, and has agreed to pay for the service for three more years, Folsom said.
"While the release of this information is concerning and unfortunate, the facts of the matter are that it was simple human error in the workplace, and that once the error was known, the county took swift measures and corrected it." Folsom wrote.
The Huffors' attorney, Erin Jensen, alleged in a May 16 demand letter that the county violated the couple's right to privacy, and that the disclosure could threaten the couple's safety. Jensen added that Bill Huffor "routinely works operations against violent drug cartels" who could use the information to "exact revenge" against him or his family.
"The Independent is a professional news organization that understands privacy and disclosure laws and, regardless of the county's error, would not have violated the Huffors' privacy rights in any event," News Editor J. Adrian Stanley said in an article about the Huffors' demand.
Jensen's letter cites several privacy-related court cases, including one in which a federal District Court ruled that personal information in police officers' personnel files should be kept private for their protection. In another case he mentioned, a jury ordered Salt Lake County to pay $650,000 to a man after the county disclosed a police report containing his personal information to an author who was writing a book about the murder of the man's wife.
The letter states that the Huffors will file a lawsuit unless the county agrees to the payout and commits to initiating a lawsuit against Zubeck or the Independent "requesting a permanent injunction requiring the destruction of the Huffors' personnel files."
Folsom said in the county's response that the county would not be making an offer for the "extraordinary and unsupported" claim. "The county will aggressively defend any litigation and is confident it will prevail in its merits," she said.
On June 7, The Gazette asked a county spokesman, Matt Steiner, for public records associated with the demand. Steiner, who Jensen identified in his letter as one employee who might have been responsible for the lapse, said there was no documentation that could be released. In response to a Gazette open records request, the county provided both the letter and its reply late Tuesday afternoon after county commissioners had sought legal counsel regarding the Huffors' demand in an executive session. Folsom later said in an email that, until commissioners directed her not to "further negotiate the claim" during the executive session, the demand letter was confidential due to ongoing negotiations.
Jensen confirmed in a Wednesday interview that his clients "absolutely" intend to sue.
"What's unfortunate is that the county isn't taking responsibility for its action in this particular case, and I think that's too bad because it's going to increase the cost to the taxpayer to resolve this," Jensen said.
The most the county has paid in about the past five years to settle a lawsuit or claim was $300,000 in 2013 that went to the father of a 27-year-old woman shot and killed by a sheriff's deputy as she drove over the officer's foot. The next highest payout - $120,000 - was awarded to a sheriff's deputy over retaliation under ex-Sheriff Terry Maketa.
Local attorneys say the Huffors' case is weak unless they can offer evidence that they've suffered negative consequences from the release of the information.
Governmental immunity laws make it difficult for plaintiffs to get damages unless they prove that a government employee's actions were "intentional, malicious or deliberate," or they can demonstrate actual harm, said Colorado Springs attorney Ed Farry.
"This isn't as if the county went out and published all this stuff - they admitted to screwing up," he said. "It's virtually inconceivable that plaintiffs can be awarded $400,000 unless they have some evidence of damage."
Phil Dubois, a local defense attorney, said the sum was something the Huffors might hope for "in their wildest dreams."
"It sounds good in the press, but it's just a made up number. If the case goes to trial, the jury will decide what, if anything, they get," he said. "There are no stipulated and guaranteed damages simply for the inadvertent release of Social Security numbers. ... You don't get money just because you fear something might happen in the future."
Contact Rachel Riley: 636-0108