Ex-Supreme Court employee suing high court for discrimination, retaliation

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A former Indiana Supreme Court employee is suing the state’s highest court for alleged ongoing disability discrimination and retaliatory actions.

Andrew Straw, a northern Indiana disability rights attorney, filed the case of Andrew U.D. Straw v. Indiana Supreme Court, et al, 1:16-cv-3483, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana on Christmas Day. In the 32-page complaint, Straw, who is representing himself, alleges that the Supreme Court and some of its highest officers have repeatedly violated his rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act and have attempted to retaliate against him for filing ADA complaints for the last 15 years.

Straw’s complaint comes less than 10 days after Jasper Superior Court Judge James Ahler, who served as the hearing officer in a disciplinary case against Straw, recommended that Straw be temporarily suspended from the practice of law in Indiana without automatic reinstatement.

In his complaint, Straw writes that he has “severe physical and mental disabilities from public service.” Specifically, the attorney said he contracted scoliosis and bipolar disorder from the time he spent as a child at Camp LeJeune, where his father was stationed as a Marine during the Vietnam War. Further, Straw wrote that he broke both of his legs and his pelvis in a car accident while he was driving to his former job at the Supreme Court in February 2001.

Straw said his trouble with the court began after the car accident, when his handicapped-accessible parking spot was taken away, forcing him to walk five blocks into work “in excruciating pain.” Additionally, Straw said he was forced to reveal his bipolar disorder on a bar exam application in 2002 and at a hearing in front of people he worked with.

Straw was fired from the Indiana Supreme Court in 2002, and in emails provided to the Indiana Lawyer, Straw claims his firing stemmed from “(using) the Internet a lot.” In the email sent in September 2014 to Brenda Rodeheffer, the court’s ADA coordinator, Straw claims Lilia Judson, the retired interim Chief Administrative Officer, discriminated against him “on the basis of (his) physical and mental disabilities, when (he) was going out of (his) way to help disabled Hoosiers who use the judicial system.” Both Rodeheffer and Judson are named as defendants in the federal case.

In the email to Rodeheffer, Straw complains that the court refused to review or take action on the petition for redress of grievances he filed in response to alleged discrimination during his 2002 bar admission process and his employment with the court from 2001 to 2002.

But in her response to Straw, Rodeheffer wrote that Straw had long ago exceeded the statute of limitations for any of his complaints stemming from issues 12 years earlier. Further, Rodeheffer wrote in the email that Straw’s complaints would not have succeeded even if they were timely filed because, “From the record, it appears that every accommodation (he) made was granted; yet, (he) did not meet the standards required for your position.”

Shortly thereafter, Rodeheffer filed a disciplinary complaint against Straw, which was the impetus for his federal complaint.  The verified complaint for disciplinary action against Straw, which was filed Jan. 11, 2016, found that the attorney had violated Rule of Professional Conduct 3.1 four times by filing four lawsuits “without a basis in law and fact for doing so that was not frivolous.” In each of the suits – Straw v. Kloecker, Straw v. ABA, Straw v. Sconiers and Rutherford v. Zalas – Straw claimed he was filing the litigation to champion the cause of disability rights for himself and other disabled people.

A disciplinary hearing was held on May 12, 2016, but Straw failed to appear. The chronological case summary of Straw’s disciplinary action shows that any proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law were due by June 13. The CCS further shows that the Disciplinary Commission’s “Tender of Proposed Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Recommendation Certification of Service” was mailed on June 13, and the “Proposed Findings of Fact and Order Certificate of Service” were electronically served the same day.

However, Ahler’s report was not filed until Dec. 16, a delay Straw says violated Disciplinary Rule 23, Section 14(i). Straw alleges that the delay in Ahler’s hearing officer’s findings report was a violation of his Sixth Amendment due process rights.

In the findings, Ahler agreed that Straw had violated Rule of Conduct 3.1 in each of the four cases and further found that his conduct was inappropriately burdensome and costly.

“On occasion, the tone and content of Respondent’s emails were inappropriate, threatening, and even quite alarming,” Ahler wrote in his findings. “For example, Respondent emailed Michael Witte, Angie Orday and Chief Justice (Loretta) Rush, stating: ‘all you need to be torn down … you have picked an enemy who will bury you.’”

Witte is the executive director of the Disciplinary Commission, and Orday is the commission’s counsel. Witte and Rush are also named as defendants in the federal suit, along with Ahler.

“In considering his conduct, Respondent displays either, at worst, a disregard for proper legal procedures or, at best, incompetence,” Ahler wrote. “In sum, the Respondent’s conduct now at issue before this Hearing Officer is very concerning and is not appropriate for a licensed attorney.”

Straw makes several demands in his suit in federal court, including a request for an official apology from the court, the removal from office of all parties involved in the disciplinary action and the creation of a Supreme Court Commission for Disability Rights and Fairness, which Straw would lead for $200,000 per year.

“I don’t believe in vigilante justice,” Straw wrote in his complaint. “I do believe in free speech against wicked government that has no remorse. I believe in law.”

A representative from the Indiana Supreme Court did not respond to a message seeking comment on the suit.

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