Combs lawsuit cost county $500K in fees (TX)

After eight years and more than $500,000 in legal fees, the Kaufman County vs. Jo Ann E. Combs saga is drawing to a close, according to Kaufman County Judge Bruce Wood.

It cost the county $710,048.59 in legal fees to defend itself against Combs claims of non payment.

In 2002, Combs was awarded $143,168.95 by a guardianship court for her services as attorney ad litem for Wallace A. Darst and his estate from 1995 until 2002.

However, U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals justices Joseph B. Morris, Molly Francis and Elizabeth Lang-Miers ruled July 31, 2012, “Because we conclude appellants have governmental immunity from suit on all of Combs’ claims, we reverse the trial court’s summary judgment and render judgment dismissing Combs’ lawsuit.”

The legal battle began June 24, 1994, when Joseph Darst, one of Wallace Darst’s sons, filed for guardianship of his father. Wallace Darst was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, according to court documents. Wallace Darst died Dec. 18, 2000.

Other family members on July 5, 1994, contested Joseph Darst’s qualifications as a guardian. The matter then went before the county’s presiding judge, Maxine Darst, Wallace Darst’s sister-in-law. Maxine Darst recused herself from the case.

Attorneys then agreed to allow Judge Glen Ashworth, who was serving in the 86th District Court, to preside over the case. Ashworth then appointed Combs as guardian of Wallace Darst’s estate as well as his ad litem.

Eight years later, Combs billed the county for her services after the estate could not pay the bill. In 2002, Ashworth awarded Combs the $143,168.95 for fees and expenses.

In 2006, Combs filed a lawsuit against the county to recover the amount Ashworth ordered in 2002. However, Judge John Robert Adamson, a visiting judge in the 86th District Court, dismissed Combs’ suit in June 2007.

Then, in December 2008, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in Dallas reversed Adamson’s decision.

Finally, after another appeal by the county in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, based on the premise the county had governmental immunity, the court justices agreed and dismissed the case in 2012.

Then, this past June, the Supreme Court of Texas declined to hear Combs’ appeal.

“We were delighted,” Wood said afterward. “This is, financially, extremely good news. If we had been made to pay [her], it would have been more than $1 million.”

In September 2012, Wood said the case was a major cost factor for the county, and that the county’s commissioners had approved paying $402,406.46 to Bickerstaff Heath Delgado Acosta LLP. Another $95,901.60 was paid to Joseph E. Ashmore, who Wood said was called in as a witness for the county. FedEx was paid $2,820.65 for its services as well.

Wood said when Combs first submitted her bill 10 years ago, then county auditor Hal Jones did not pay it because he could not legally do so. Wood said Jones would not pay it because there wasn’t an order to do so.

Kaufman County residents, as of September 2012, had shelled out a little more than $500,000 in connection with Combs’ case against the county’s commissioners.

Insurance did not cover any of the costs of defense and would not have covered payment of the final judgment, according to Wood.

He said money paid or that would have been paid in the case came from tax dollars.

In a statement released by Wood, the Kaufman County Commissioners Court was happy that the case and costs have concluded.


Combs lawsuit cost county $500K in fees
Gary Lindsley
December 31, 2013
The Kaufman Herald