A procedural decision in a DeKalb County schools lawsuit Thursday could cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.
Or it might cost them nothing.
Lawyers for construction management company Heery International Inc. said a judge's decision in the five-year-old court dispute was a major blow against the DeKalb County School District, but school system lawyers disagreed.
DeKalb Superior Court Judge Clarence F. Seeliger dismissed a portion of DeKalb's $100 million lawsuit against Heery because the time frame involving some allegations of mismanagement fell outside the statute of limitations. Heery managed $679 million in DeKalb school construction projects from October 1997 until DeKalb suspended the contract in April 2006. .
"We effectively knocked out about three and a half years of their breach-of-contract claims," said Mark Grantham of DLA Piper, Heery's lawyer. The judge dismissed claims for events prior to February 2001. "It's potentially worth tens of millions of dollars," Grantham said.
DeKalb's lawyer, Robert Khayat, Jr. of King & Spalding, said the ruling didn't affect the amount of money the school system could recover because the school system is also pursuing damages back to 1997 under other legal grounds, such as violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) law.
"We still have fraud, breach of fiduciary duties and RICO claims under which we're seeking the same damages that predate 2001," Khayat said.
Both lawyers could be right, said Rich Freer, a professor of civil procedure and litigation at Emory University.
Plaintiffs' lawyers routinely pursue damage claims under multiple legal grounds, so a case can still stand if a judge kicks out a leg, Freer said. However, a missing leg can make for a wobbly case during pretrial maneuvering that lawyers call "the big dance."
"All these things matter in terms of positioning for a possible settlement," Freer said.