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Township assessor loses appeal

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The Indiana Court of Appeals ruled against a township assessor who filed a suit last year after the General Assembly enacted a bill that eliminated her office and transferred her duties to the county assessor.

In Joan Stoffel, individually and as named representative of the class of township assessors v. Gov. Mitch Daniels, State of Indiana, et al., No. 35A05-0902-CV-87, Joan Stoffel, as Huntington Township Assessor in Huntington County, appealed the trial court's ruling on the township assessors' verified complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief, and grant of the state's motion to dismiss.

Stoffel was elected in 2006 as township assessor and her term was set to expire at the end of 2010; however, the General Assembly passed legislation in 2008 that dictated after June 30, 2008, the county assessor shall perform the assessment duties prescribed by Indiana Code Section 6-1.1 in a township in which the number of parcels of real property on Jan. 1, 2008, is less than 15,000. As of July 1, 2008, the Huntington County Assessor assumed the duties of Stoffel's township.

In Stoffel's complaint, she sought a declaration that portions of the new enrolled act were unconstitutional under Articles 6 and 15 of the Indiana Constitution by abolishing an official position in the middle of an incumbent's term, claimed tortious interference with the contract she has with her constituents, and filed a petition for an emergency hearing on verified complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief. The trial court adopted the state's findings and granted the state's motion to dismiss.

The township assessor's position is provided for in the Indiana Constitution, but its actual existence depends entirely on statutory action by the legislature, wrote Judge Patricia Riley. The Court of Appeals disagreed with Stoffel's argument that Article 15, Section 3 supports her position that she is entitled to hold her office for the full four-year term and noted Indiana caselaw has consistently established that the legislature has the determinative vote regarding the existence and duties of elected officers.

The General Assembly has the authority to curtail the duties, powers, and obligations of an elected township assessor, even in the middle of the term, and transfer those duties, wrote the judge. As such, the trial court properly dismissed Stoffel's constitutional challenge.

Her tortious interference claim also failed because there is no contractual relationship or obligation that can be interfered with, wrote Judge Riley. Holding office is a public duty prescribed by law, not by a contract. Her request for preliminary injunctive relief also failed because the holding her constitutional challenge claim was properly dismissed preempts the entry of injunctive relief for Stoffel.

The trial court erred by ruling Stoffel didn't have standing to bring her claims and the state defendants are the proper parties from whom she seeks redress, ruled the appellate court.

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