Lawsuit alleges political firing in township assessor's office

·3 min read

Jun. 3—A pending civil suit alleges wrongful termination of an employee in the Harrison Township Assessor office for political reasons.

The legal action claims Harrison Township Assessor Laura Tohill fired Julie Schimmel for supporting Chrissie (Kelly) Patterson in the Democratic primary election. Tohill terminated Schimmel a day after the May 3 election, an election won by Patterson.

"Indiana law expressly provides that a non-policy making, non-confidential public employee cannot be fired upon the sole ground of political beliefs," attorney Christopher Gambill said in the tort claim.

Gambill sent a notice of intent to file a lawsuit, called a tort claim, on May 16 to the Indiana Political Subdivision Risk Management Commission.

The township assessor can deny the claim, which would allow a lawsuit to be filed. If the township assessor does not respond within 90 days, a lawsuit can also then be filed, Gambill said.

Under a 1983 federal civil rights act, the tort claim can also be filed in state court to recover punitive damages and attorney fees.

Tohill on Thursday said Schimmel was not terminated for political reasons.

"It was not for that reason, but I would rather not discuss that," Tohill said.

The tort claim states that Tohill was elected in a Democratic party caucus after the Feb. 3 death of Harrison Township Assessor Donald Pruett.

Three people — Patterson, Tohill and Michael W. West — had filed as candidates in the caucus. The same three people also filed as candidates for the May 3 primary election. Patterson and Tohill each work in the township assessor's office.

The tort claim notice asserts Tohill, after winning the party caucus to replace Pruett, "spoke to the staff of the assessor's office and stated to the employees that no employee would be fired and no employee position was going to change."

The tort claim also contends the office chief deputy later instructed employees they need to "choose one side or the other. The clear implication of Chief Deputy Alexus Layton was that employees needed to commit to supporting Laura Tohill," according to the tort claim.

Schimmel's duties were to work with Patterson in conducting new construction assessments. The tort claim states Schimmel supported Patterson in the election for the township assessor. Patterson won the election with 38% of the vote, with 1,335 votes. Tohill received 1,285 votes and West 897 votes.

The tort claim contends Schimmel had "never been disciplined or had any complaints regarding her job performance" by Tohill since Tohill was selected by the caucus in February.

After her termination, Schimmel asked Tohill why she was being terminated, with Tohill responding, "It's just not working out," according to the tort claim. However, the tort claim also contends that "Vigo County Human Rights Resources employee Kara Wright walked Julie Schimmel from the Harrison Township Assessor's office to Wright's office and stated that Laura Tohill knew that Julie Schimmel had been politically supporting Chrissie Patterson," according to the tort claim.

The tort claim asserts Tohill's termination of Schimmel also "violated Schimmel's First Amendment rights of free speech."

Reporter Howard Greninger can be reached 812-231-4204 or Follow on Twitter@TribStarHoward.