7th Circuit asked to reinstate employment claims against state in former AG Hill groping case

The issues of jurisdiction and employment relationships were at the center of arguments before the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday as three of the four women who accused former Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill of drunkenly groping them asked the appellate panel to reinstate their federal lawsuit against the state.

Attorney Hannah Kaufman Joseph of the Indianapolis firm JBJ Legal presented arguments on behalf of Gabrielle McLemore Brock, Niki DaSilva and Samantha Lozano, three former Indiana legislative staffers who say Hill groped them at an early-morning party in 2018, then began a public campaign to undermine their credibility when their accusations became public.

The three women, as well as former Indiana state Rep. Mara Candelaria Reardon, sued Hill in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana alongside the state, alleging violations of Title VII, among other claims. The Indiana House and Senate intervened, arguing they were the women’s employers, not the state.

Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson agreed, dismissing the state as a defendant in March 2020. Hill was also terminated as a defendant, while Reardon was terminated as a plaintiff, which is why she’s not participating in the 7th Circuit appeal.

The trio of women asked the 7th Circuit panel to reinstate their federal claims against the state, arguing the district court committed both procedural and substantive errors.

On the procedural side, Kaufman Joseph said the district court erred by relying on facts in the Legislature’s motions to intervene to reach the decision that the state was not their employer — facts the lawyer said are not in the record.

On the substantive side, Kaufman Joseph said the district court misapplied Hearne v. Chicago Bd. Of Educ., 185 F.3d 770 (7th Cir. 1999), to determine that the legislative bodies, and not the state, were the women’s employers. She urged the appellate panel to revisit Hearne and Holman v. Indiana, 211 F.3d 399 (7th Cir. 2000).

“There is a big difference between whether the state is the employer, or the House and Senate are the employer,” Kaufman Joseph said. “The House and Senate will argue that they have no ability to control Curtis Hill … therefore no liability.”

But the state, represented by deputy attorney general Aaron Craft, said suing the state as an employer “adds nothing” because the House and Senate are the entities with hiring and firing power. He noted that all four women initially brought their complaints about Hill to legislative leadership.

Craft likened the situation to the private industry. If a Dairy Queen worker has an employment complaint, they would take that complaint to Dairy Queen, he said — not parent company Berkshire Hathaway.

Additionally, there is no reason to revisit Hearne and Holman, Craft argued, saying the district court’s employment analysis was correct. Under Title VII, he said, the entity with hiring and firing authority is the entity best equipped to “address, respond to and prevent discrimination in the workplace.”

Also at issue in the arguments was the question of whether the 7th Circuit had jurisdiction to hear the case.

Craft acknowledged the state had raised the jurisdictional issue because the plaintiffs moved for entry of partial final judgment in the district court on April 10, 2020, rather than April 1, which the state said was the deadline.

He said the state had an obligation to raise that issue under King v. Newbold, 845 F.3d 866, 868 (7th Cir. 2017), and Schaefer v. First Nat’l Bank of Lincolnwood, 465 F.2d 234, 236 (7th Circ. 1972). However, he also said that if the state’s claimed deadline was a “claim-processing rule” under Hamer v. Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago, 583 U.S. ___ (2017), the state would not “push” the issue.

Kaufman Joseph noted Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(B) does not expressly give a deadline for motions for entry of final judgment. She also said resolving the appeal now is in the interests of justice.

Although Hill did not participate in the appeal, he was referenced multiple times during the arguments.

In addition to the federal lawsuit, the four women are also suing Hill in state court, with a civil jury trial set for September.

The former AG faced extensive fallout after the allegations were public, culminating with the 30-day suspension of his law license.  In a disciplinary action, the Indiana Supreme Court determined Hill had committed misdemeanor battery on the women.

Shortly after his suspension, Hill lost his bid for reelection when the state Republican caucus selected now-Attorney General Todd Rokita to represent the GOP on the ballot in 2020.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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