Knox County taxpayers off the hook for bill from San Francisco law firm

Dhillon Group filed motion to get legal fees for anti-mask fight

By: - April 11, 2022 11:00 am

Knox County government offices. (Photo: Knox County Facebook)

Knox County taxpayers were at risk of footing the legal bills of a San Francisco law firm their elected leaders didn’t hire or approve to fight a judicial mask mandate their own government is already fighting on their dime — until the Tennessee Lookout asked their mayor about it.

The Tennessee Lookout on Thursday morning asked Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs to comment on the Dhillon Law Group’s request in U.S. District Court for legal fees from Knox County taxpayers in a lawsuit filed on behalf of a “nonincorporated nonprofit association” over a judicial mask mandate for school children.

Jacobs, via spokesman Mike Donila, asked for time to respond. Soon after, the Dhillon Group filed a motion to withdraw its request for legal fees. Jacobs’ office then issued a written response to the Tennessee Lookout, with the newly-filed motion attached.

“Taxpayers are not on the hook for legal fees of any kind other than those being paid to the elected law director and his staff,” Donila wrote on behalf of the mayor.

Jacobs and State Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville,  in March posted a video on Twitter in which the pair touted the firm’s work in COVID litigation and urged citizens to donate money to pay the firm to fight masking students. 

The firm filed notice in U.S. District Court of its demand for legal fees from taxpayers two days after the video was posted.

Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs (Photo: knoxcounty.org)
Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs (Photo: knoxcounty.org)

Knox County Deputy Law Director David Sanders had sounded the alarm on the firm’s bid to recoup legal fees from taxpayers more than a week ago, court records show, with no response from the Dhillon Law Group or the mayor’s office.

Sanders noted in a motion filed April 1 that he is already being paid by taxpayers to fight a judicial mask mandate for Knox County students. He said in the motion that the law firm should be barred from collecting money from Knox County taxpayers and called the firm’s lawsuit demands a “fruitless, circuitous remedy.”

“(Knox County) has vigorously opposed the court’s order mandating masks,” Sanders wrote in an April 1 motion. “(The lawsuit) asks this court to enjoin (the Knox County Board of Education) from complying with the Court’s own injunction.”

The judicial mask mandate, meanwhile, was lifted March 14.

Donila said in a follow-up response Thursday evening that Jacobs contacted the Dhillon Law Group after receiving the Tennessee Lookout’s request for comment and had been unaware the firm was seeking to bill Knox County for its legal fees.

Masks, courts and politics

The Knox County Board of Education voted down a mask mandate for students last September. The parents of three Knox County students followed up that vote with a proposed class-action lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court.

The lawsuit argued the lives of students with pre-existing health conditions were at risk from COVID unless U.S. District Judge Ronnie Greer stepped in with a temporary judicial mask mandate order. Sanders quickly filed a motion on behalf of Knox County against a mandate.

“(The Knox County Board of Education) submits that (a) decision regarding whether to impose a mask mandate is a political one that the court should not intervene in,” Sanders wrote. “Ultimately, the elected members of the (school board) will have to answer to the voters.”

Greer sided with the students’ mask-seeking parents in late September and issued a mask mandate for students attending Knox County Schools. He amended his order a month later to allow school officials to consider and, in some cases, grant medical exemptions from the mandate.

Sanders appealed Greer’s ruling on behalf of Knox County in late October, but the mandate remained in effect pending the outcome of that appeal. The school board was required to enforce it and did so.

Four months later, Jacobs and Zachary posted a video on Twitter in which both made a pitch for donations to an organization they identified as Unmask Knox County Kids to help pay the Dhillon Law Group to challenge the judicial mask mandate. 

Mayor Glenn Jacobs and State Rep. Jason Zachary in March posted a video on Twitter in which the pair touted the firm’s work in COVID litigation and urged citizens to donate money to pay the firm to fight masking students.Two days later, the Dhillon Group filed notice demanding fees from Knox County taxpayers 

“It’s incredible the work this firm has done over the last couple of weeks in preparation for this suit in defense of Knox County children,” Zachary said in the March 1 video. “But we can’t do this with just our donations. We need you to join us. This is going to be a community effort.”

Raising cash

The Unmask Knox County Kids organization is not registered with the IRS or any government agency. The Dhillon Law Group firm said in a court motion that the group is a “nonincorporated nonprofit association” made up of 1,063 Knox County parents, teachers and “concerned” taxpayers.

The group has a website that lists Knox County parents Angie Goethert and Andrew Schoenecker as president and treasurer, respectively, and “constitutional rights activist” Laura Branson as secretary. The group did not respond to requests for comment.

Its website says the group wants to raise $250,000 to pay the firm’s legal bills and had raised $40,231 as of March 10.

The only requirement for membership in Unmask Knox County Kids, the group’s website says, is the filing of an online form, attesting to an interest either as a Knox County parent, school employee or taxpayer. There is no verification process, according to the website.

The website has an “update and news” section. All items in that section are news releases by and about the Dhillon Law Group and its work for the group.

Jacobs and Zachary donated $5,000 each to pay the firm, according to their Twitter video. Zachary did not respond to requests for comment on whether he knew the Dhillon Law Group would seek to hold Knox County taxpayers responsible for the firm’s legal bills when he donated to the group.

Greer lifted his mask mandate March 14 at the request of Sanders and the mask-seeking parents in the original lawsuit, court records show. The two sides are working with a federal mediator and must report back to Greer within 60 days. Meanwhile, the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has set a hearing in May to consider whether Greer was wrong to issue a mask mandate in the first place.

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Jamie Satterfield
Jamie Satterfield

Jamie Satterfield is an investigative journalist with more than 33 years of experience, specializing in legal affairs, policing, public corruption, environmental crime and civil rights violations. Her journalism has been honored as some of the best in the nation, earning recognition from the Scripps Howard Foundation, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi Awards, the Green Eyeshade Awards, the Tennessee Press Association, the Tennessee Managing Editors Association, the First Amendment Center and many other industry organizations. Her work has led to criminal charges against wrongdoers, changes in state law and citations in legal opinions and journals. She was married to the love of her life for 28 years and is now a widow and proud mother of two successful children of good character and work ethic.

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