Fifth District affirms dismissal of six suits against Saline Township

The Fifth District Appellate Court on Monday affirmed a Madison County ruling dismissing six lawsuits against Saline Township. The suits were brought by six women -- Elizabeth Watkins, Jamie Miener, Melanie Hedlund, Laura Barry, Tara Reding and Ailie Ritchie—who accused former Township Supervisor Alvin Steiner of sexually harassing them when they applied for general assistance. The women also sued the township, asserting that it contributed to Steiner’s misconduct by failing to properly supervise him. The suits included counts for violations of the Premises Liability, the Gender Violence and the Illinois Civil Rights acts. Claiming that the women failed to state a cause of action under Section 2-615 of the Illinois Code of Civil Procedure, the township sought dismissal of the suits. Madison County Circuit Judge Dennis Ruth agreed with the township and in 2011, dismissed all counts against it. The women appealed and on Monday, a panel of the Fifth District affirmed Ruth’s ruling in an unpublished order. Steiner, who resigned from his position in 2009, settled all claims against him and was not party to the appeal. Justice Stephen Spomer delivered the court’s order. Justices Thomas Welch and James Wextten concurred. In addressing the plaintiffs’ claim under the Premises Liability Act, the appeals panel determined that the Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act applies because Saline Township is a local governmental unit. “Here, the plaintiffs allege that the presence of Alvin Steiner constituted an unsafe ‘condition’ which the Township failed to ‘exercise ordinary care to maintain,’” Spomer wrote for the court. “However, we find that the plain meaning of section 3-102 of the Tort Immunity Act … cannot be construed in this manner.” In contrast to the Premises Liability Act, Spomer explained that under the Tort Immunity Act “the duty to maintain property refers solely to the physical condition of the property and not to ‘acts or omissions’ of persons on the property.” In addition, the appeals panel rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that “the hours in which the Township office was closed, the arrangement of the furniture in Steiner's office, and the timing of employee breaks” were unsafe conditions that showed a breach of the township’s duty. The plaintiffs’ also alleged that the township encouraged Steiner’s misconduct by closing the township office, dismissing employees during the day, not supervising him and giving him an office. Saying that all of those things were under Steiner’s control, Spomer wrote for the court that “[w]e find that these allegations do not rise to the level of personal encouragement or assistance on the part of the Township as required by section 10 of the Gender Violence Act.” The appeals panel also nixed the plaintiffs’ claim under the Civil Rights Act, saying they failed to state a cause of action on all three counts Wood River attorneys Thomas and Peter Maag represented the plaintiffs at the trial court level. Naperville attorney Lori Vanderlaan and others represented Saline Township.

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