Judge sorts through motions to dismiss Saline Township sexual misconduct suits

Amelia Flood Jul. 21, 2010, 2:45am



Madison County Circuit Judge Dennis Ruth admitted at a hearing Monday that even he had trouble keeping track of which counts in six sexual misconduct suits filed against Saline Township and a former official were at the heart of a number of motions to dismiss.

"It sometimes makes my head spin," Ruth told the attorneys before him.

Ruth heard motions in the six cases after he consolidated a sixth suit with five older cases that had already been joined.

Six women have filed suit against former Saline Township Supervisor Alvin Steiner and Saline Township alleging virtually identical claims.

The women - Elizabeth Watkins, Jamie Miener, Melanie Hedlund, Laura Barry, Ailie Ritchie, and Tara Reding - contend that Steiner touched them sexually and threatened them when they came to Saline Township seeking public aid.

Hedlund further contends that Steiner sexually assaulted her in her apartment and trespassed there.

Steiner, who resigned from his post last year, and the township deny the claims.

The suits seek at least $50,000 in damages, punitive damages, and costs.

The hearing began at 10:30 and continued until nearly 3 p.m. Monday.

Attorneys for both Saline Township and Steiner argued at length as to why the bulk of the counts in the six cases should be thrown out.

Ruth questioned the attorneys extensively as they argued points such as vicarious liability, the statute of limitations and what relationship Steiner had to Saline Township.

Saline Township attorney Lori Vanderlaan pointed to Steiner's role as a public official as proof that he was not an employee of the township. Therefore, according to Vanderlaan's arguments, the township had no ability to supervise or remove Steiner due to his conduct.

"Just as the legislature may impeach Governor [Rod] Blagojevich," Vanderlaan said, "that doesn't make him an employee of the legislature."

Even if he had been an employee, Vanderlaan argued his actions were well beyond the scope of his employment and the township could not be held responsible.

Ruth agreed, dismissing any respondent superior claims.

Steiner's attorney, Mark Graebel, pointed to the one year-rule that he argued precluded the suits brought by Barry and Ritchie.

Ruth questioned whether that rule, laid down in one statute, was meant to be absolute and whether it was trumped by the seven-year statute of limitations laid out in the state's Gender Violence Act.

"So, I'm a public employee and you've only got a year to sue me for whatever I do?" Ruth asked before adding, "Not, like I'm going to go out and do anything."

Ruth did not rule on the statute of limitations issue.

Plaintiff's counsel Thomas Maag argued that the two defendants were arguing conflicting positions. Maag pointed to Steiner's contention that he was an employee and therefore protected by the Illinois Governmental Tort Immunity Act while Saline Township was disavowing his employment.

"We can't have it both ways," Maag said.

Ruth eventually ruled that any claims against Saline Township as Steiner's respondent superior were dismissed with prejudice.

He took the claims under the Gender Violence Act found in the Barry and Ritchie suits under advisement on that issue only. Ruth also took claims of negligent administration under advisement.

Several other claims under the Gender Violence Act were dismissed with the plaintiffs allowed to amend them.

Premises liability claims were dismissed with leave to amend.

Steiner's motion to dismiss both the Ritchie and Barry suits under the statute of limitations was taken under advisement.

A move by Steiner to throw out the plaintiffs' claims for punitive damages was denied.

The plaintiffs have two weeks to amend their various claims.

The defendants will then have two weeks after to respond.

A status conference is set for Aug. 25 at 9 a.m. in cases.

Ruth chided attorneys from all sides at several points during the hearing for filing motions late and holding up the discovery process.

Thomas and Peter Maag represent all of the plaintiffs.

Saline Township is represented by Lori Vanderlaan and William Knapp.

Steiner is represented by Mark Graebel.

The Watkins suit was the first of the cases to be filed in January of this year.

Reding's suit is the most recent filing.

The Saline Township suits are Madison case numbers 10-L-145, 10-L-178, 10-L-219, 10-L-309, 10-L-310 and 10-L-555.

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