Tort claim notice, IG report create more legal obstacles for Hill

Though Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill won’t face criminal charges stemming from allegations that he groped at least four women at a party in March, he may not legally be out of the woods. A tort claim notice filed with Hill’s office last week announced the women’s plans to seek civil redress against the Attorney General, an action that could have a direct impact on taxpayers’ wallets.

Under Indiana Code section 34-13-3-17, if the tort claim proceeds and a court enters judgment against any of the state defendants, the court can order a governmental entity to “levy and collect a tax to pay the judgment if there are insufficient funds available for that purpose.” Further, questions remain as to whether the Office of the Attorney General will pay for outside counsel to defend the state against the civil claims — questions Hill, his office and his attorneys have so far declined to answer.

hill-timeline.pngSpeaking on behalf of Hill’s four victims — State Rep. Mara Candelaria Reardon, D-Munster, and legislative staffers Niki DaSilva, Samantha Lozano and Gabrielle McLemore — Katz Korin Cunningham P.C. attorney BJ Brinkerhoff said the firm trusts the AG’s office to handle their tort claims appropriately.

Though Hill has publicly and repeatedly denied the women’s allegations that he groped them at a party in March, their legal team is standing behind them and is promising to pursue both state and federal claims to hold the AG accountable, including claims of assault and battery, false imprisonment, defamation, false light invasion of privacy and the Indiana Anti-SLAPP Statute.

Corroborated reports

A series of 56 interviews conducted by the Office of the Inspector General, which investigated the groping allegations after they came to light last summer, created a timeline of what occurred in the early morning hours of March 15, when Hill went to AJ’s Lounge for a party to celebrate the end of the legislative session.

The IG’s report, released Oct. 23, corroborates much of what has already been reported about the groping allegations in the media. Specifically, the IG’s report says several witnesses saw Hill inappropriately touch the four women and make unwanted sexual advances toward them at the party. The women and witnesses claim Hill:

• Slid his hand down Reardon’s back and under her dress and grabbed her buttocks once, then attempted to grab her a second time;

• Ran his entire hand up and down McLemore’s back;

• Grabbed Lozano by the waist and pulled her close to him, and;

• Slid his hand down DaSilva’s back before placing both her hand and his on her buttocks.

These accounts are similar to the facts listed in the tort claim notice, which must statutorily be filed with the AG’s office, even though the office and its leader — as well as the state, which Hill’s office is statutorily tasked with defending — are the parties being sued.

The IG’s report also says four additional women, all of them lobbyists, claim Hill behaved inappropriately toward them by placing his arm around their shoulders and touching their backs, and by “dirty dancing” with one of them. The lobbyists have not been named.

Each of these claims is made against the backdrop of free-flowing alcohol, with Hill reportedly having consumed at least two glasses of wine before arriving at AJ’s, where he had a martini and sipped on whiskey.

Inappropriate use of resources?

Beyond his conduct at AJ’s Lounge, the four women’s tort claim notice takes aim at Hill’s response when the groping allegations became public. They raise specific concerns about Hill’s decision to use resources of the AG’s office to defend himself, conduct Inspector General Lori Torres found was not actionable.

Specifically, according to the tort claim notice, Hill used his official Twitter and Facebook accounts to “threaten and intimidate the Claimants” and to denounce the accusations and maintain his innocence. Further, Hill held a press conference in his Statehouse office July 9 to deny the allegations, then created a legal defense fund, “Fairness for Curtis Hill,” which the claimants say was intended to discredit them. Hill said he created Fairness for Curtis Hill to fund his legal fees, including fees that would accrue if he followed through on his threat to file defamation claims against his accusers.

Many Hoosiers cried foul over Hill’s use of state resources to defend himself, but Torres said his conduct did not violate ghost employment and misuse of state property statutes.

“Due to the limited duration of the July 9 media briefing, as well as minor participation of state employees in the dissemination of the news releases, the IG concluded that the elements of the criminal offense of ghost employment were not present,” Torres wrote.

What now?

Once the women officially file their tort claim with a court, the AG’s Office will have 90 days to determine whether the claim will be approved or denied. If the claim is denied in whole or in part, the women can sue. So far, Hill’s office has not indicated whether he will hire outside counsel to defend the state against the tort claim, as he is permitted to do under Indiana Code section 34-13-3-15.

Under I.C. 34-13-3-4, the state caps liability “of all governmental entities and of all public employees, acting within the scope of their employment,” at $700,000 “for injury to … one (1) person in any one occurrence,” or at $5 million “for injury to … all persons in that occurrence.” The women intend to sue Hill in both his individual and official capacities.

While the Indiana Tort Claims Act allows the court to order the collection of a tax to pay any judgment entered against the state defendants, the four women can also be required to pay the state if the state successfully defends itself. Under I.C. 34-13-3-21, claimants who file frivolous, unreasonable or groundless actions, or who litigate in bad faith, can be required to pay the state’s attorney’s fees.

Though Torres joined Sigler in declining to file a criminal complaint against Hill, she also said his “creepy” behavior was “well documented.”

“Multiple eyewitnesses provided statements that Hill’s conduct was inappropriate, ‘creepy,’ unwelcome, and made many of the women at the party uncomfortable,” Torres wrote.

“Men and women from both parties, the political left and the political right, provided accounts of what transpired that night.”

For his part, Hill continues to maintain his innocence and his resolve to resist calls for his resignation from Gov. Eric Holcomb and leaders in both parties.•

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