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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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