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County not dismissed in fired court clerks suits

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Clark County lost in its efforts to be dismissed from suits filed by two fired Clark Circuit Court employees. Chief Judge David F. Hamilton in the U.S. District Court, Southern District of Indiana, ordered the county to file answers to the complaints no later than Sept. 6.

Former Clark Circuit Court employees Chanelle Vavasseur and Jeremy Snelling allege newly elected Judge Daniel Moore fired them Jan.1, 2009, from their jobs as clerks of the court based on their political affiliations. Judge Moore ran as a Democrat in the election, defeating Republican candidate and sitting Judge Abe Navarro. Vavasseur also claimed she was fired because she is African-American.

The plaintiffs each filed suit in May in state court; both cases were moved to District Court. They claim their First Amendment rights were violated and Vavasseur's equal protection rights were violated under the 14th Amendment.

Chief Judge Hamilton released the entry Monday on Clark County's motion to dismiss in Vavasseur and Snelling's cases in a combined entry, Chanelle M. Vavasseur and Jeremy Snelling v. State of Indiana, Clark County, Ind., Clark Circuit Court, and Daniel Moore, Nos. 4:09-CV-0072 and 4:09-CV-0073.

Clark County argued that because the plaintiffs were employees of the Circuit Court, which is an arm of the state, the county is not a proper defendant.

Despite both sides' arguments that the law is clearly on their respective sides that the District Court should order the other side to pay attorneys' fees for frivolous claims or frivolous motions to dismiss, Chief Judge Hamilton wrote Indiana law on the question isn't as transparent as either side claims.

The county relied on State ex rel. McClure v. Marion Superior Court, 158 N.E.2d 264 (Ind. 1959), in which the Indiana Supreme Court held the governor has the power to fill vacancies in the office of Circuit Court Clerk. The plaintiffs relied on Knoebel v. Clark County Superior Court No. 1, 901 N.E.2d 529 (Ind. App. 2009), which held both the court and the county were proper defendants when a court employee who was paid by the county sued for back pay under state law.

Knoebel lends support to Vavasseur and Snelling's view, even if the principal targets of the lawsuits are the decisions by the circuit judge to fire both plaintiffs, wrote the chief judge. But Knoebel might be distinguished from the instant case because that plaintiff Susan Knoebel was a probation officer rather than a clerk; she relied only on state law rather than federal law, and she challenged a decision only about pay levels rather than a termination.

"For now, with an undeveloped record on both the relevant facts and the law, the court denies both pending motions to dismiss filed by the county when the case was still in state court," wrote Chief Judge Hamilton.

The requests for attorney fees' on the question of the county's role as a defendant were also denied to all parties.

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  1. Mr. Levin says that the BMV engaged in misconduct--that the BMV (or, rather, someone in the BMV) knew Indiana motorists were being overcharged fees but did nothing to correct the situation. Such misconduct, whether engaged in by one individual or by a group, is called theft (defined as knowingly or intentionally exerting unauthorized control over the property of another person with the intent to deprive the other person of the property's value or use). Theft is a crime in Indiana (as it still is in most of the civilized world). One wonders, then, why there have been no criminal prosecutions of BMV officials for this theft? Government misconduct doesn't occur in a vacuum. An individual who works for or oversees a government agency is responsible for the misconduct. In this instance, somebody (or somebodies) with the BMV, at some time, knew Indiana motorists were being overcharged. What's more, this person (or these people), even after having the error of their ways pointed out to them, did nothing to fix the problem. Instead, the overcharges continued. Thus, the taxpayers of Indiana are also on the hook for the millions of dollars in attorneys fees (for both sides; the BMV didn't see fit to avail itself of the services of a lawyer employed by the state government) that had to be spent in order to finally convince the BMV that stealing money from Indiana motorists was a bad thing. Given that the BMV official(s) responsible for this crime continued their misconduct, covered it up, and never did anything until the agency reached an agreeable settlement, it seems the statute of limitations for prosecuting these folks has not yet run. I hope our Attorney General is paying attention to this fiasco and is seriously considering prosecution. Indiana, the state that works . . . for thieves.

  2. I'm glad that attorney Carl Hayes, who represented the BMV in this case, is able to say that his client "is pleased to have resolved the issue". Everyone makes mistakes, even bureaucratic behemoths like Indiana's BMV. So to some extent we need to be forgiving of such mistakes. But when those mistakes are going to cost Indiana taxpayers millions of dollars to rectify (because neither plaintiff's counsel nor Mr. Hayes gave freely of their services, and the BMV, being a state-funded agency, relies on taxpayer dollars to pay these attorneys their fees), the agency doesn't have a right to feel "pleased to have resolved the issue". One is left wondering why the BMV feels so pleased with this resolution? The magnitude of the agency's overcharges might suggest to some that, perhaps, these errors were more than mere oversight. Could this be why the agency is so "pleased" with this resolution? Will Indiana motorists ever be assured that the culture of incompetence (if not worse) that the BMV seems to have fostered is no longer the status quo? Or will even more "overcharges" and lawsuits result? It's fairly obvious who is really "pleased to have resolved the issue", and it's not Indiana's taxpayers who are on the hook for the legal fees generated in these cases.

  3. From the article's fourth paragraph: "Her work underscores the blurry lines in Russia between the government and businesses . . ." Obviously, the author of this piece doesn't pay much attention to the "blurry lines" between government and businesses that exist in the United States. And I'm not talking only about Trump's alleged conflicts of interest. When lobbyists for major industries (pharmaceutical, petroleum, insurance, etc) have greater access to this country's elected representatives than do everyday individuals (i.e., voters), then I would say that the lines between government and business in the United States are just as blurry, if not more so, than in Russia.

  4. For some strange reason this story, like many on this ezine that question the powerful, seems to have been released in two formats. Prior format here: http://www.theindianalawyer.com/nominees-selected-for-us-attorney-in-indiana/PARAMS/article/44263 That observed, I must note that it is quite refreshing that denizens of the great unwashed (like me) can be allowed to openly question powerful elitists at ICE MILLER who are on the public dole like Selby. Kudos to those at this ezine who understand that they cannot be mere lapdogs to the powerful and corrupt, lest freedom bleed out. If you wonder why the Senator resisted Selby, consider reading the comments here for a theory: http://www.theindianalawyer.com/nominees-selected-for-us-attorney-in-indiana/PARAMS/article/44263

  5. Why is it a crisis that people want to protect their rights themselves? The courts have a huge bias against people appearing on their own behalf and these judges and lawyers will face their maker one day and answer for their actions.

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