Perkins becomes lawyers' paradise

PERKINS TWP. The Perkins Township government has become a lawyers' paradise in the past couple of ye
Sandusky Register Staff
May 24, 2010

PERKINS TWP.

The Perkins Township government has become a lawyers' paradise in the past couple of years, with two pending lawsuits and insurance company pot of cash on the line.

What's worse is all of the litigation is internal, with Trustee Bill Dwelle filing suit against a police chaplain over comments Dwelle said created the impression Dwelle is a racist.

Dwelle also figures prominently in a lawsuit filed by police Chief Tim McClung and police Lt. Al Matthews. The two police officers contend Dwelle has created a hostile work environment by making numerous false allegations of wrongdoing.

Both lawsuits were filed in Erie County Common Pleas Court and are winding their way through the legal system. Neither have gone to trial or been settled and both are in their initial stages.

McClung and Matthews vs. Dwelle

Perkins Police Chief Tim McClung and police Lt. Al Matthews filed their lawsuit against Dwelle, his wife Sandra and township trustees earlier this year, contending that Dwelle had created a hostile work environment.

The legal definition of hostile work environment is an environment where speech or conduct is severely or pervasively damaging to an individual and his or her ability to perform job functions.

The standard used by civil rights agencies such as the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and federal courts in determining whether a hostile work environment exists is whether a reasonable person, in the same or similar circumstances, would find the conduct offensive.

McClung and Matthews contend Dwelle has made numerous false allegations against both of them and has never backed up any of the claims or offered evidence of wrongdoing.

Dwelle alleged items were missing from the police inventory, but later said he never made such a statement. Matthews also contends Sandra Dwelle followed him numerous times and attempted to take photographs of him as part of the harassment campaign.

Dwelle vs. Fant

Dwelle filed a lawsuit against the Rev. Thomas Fant last month, contending that statements Fant made at a trustee meeting last year had hurt Dwelle's reputation.

Fant asked Dwelle at the public meeting whether Dwelle was a racist, citing concerns that had been raised by a black Perkins police officer. Fant argues that he was acting in his role as chaplain for the Perkins Police Department when he asked Dwelle the question.

Dwelle asked the trustee board to take action, but trustees Tom Pascoe and Tim Coleman refused. John Coppeler, the township's legal counsel, also advised the trustees not to go forward with any litigation against Fant.

Lawyers love litigation

The township has a $5,000 deductible per lawsuit with its risk management company, Burnham & Flower Insurance Group. The insurer represents the township as a part of the Ohio Township Association Risk Management Authority.

The insurer declined comment on the pending litigation.

Just how much money the legal wrangling will cost taxpayers is unclear.

The minimum cost to the township will be $5,000, the deductible that must be paid before the insurance kicks in. The insurer is not obligated to represent Sandra Dwelle in the action because she is not a township employee.

But that minimum could be doubled if the insurer determines Fant was acting in the capacity of a township employee in making the statements at the trustee meeting.

The insurer could be forced to represent Fant in the lawsuit filed by Dwelle because Fant contends the allegations pertain to his work as chaplain for the Perkins Police Department.

The insurance company is considering that question, according to Coppeler.

It's been determined already that Dwelle filed the Fant lawsuit as a private individual because his fellow trustees refused to support any legal action against Fant.

But the insurer has yet to determine whether Fant was effectively a township employee when he asked Dwelle whether Dwelle was a racist, Coppeler said, and if the remarks were made in that role.

If those thresholds are met, the insurer will be required to provide a legal defense for Fant, Coppeler said.

Other costs could be borne by taxpayers. It is not uncommon for insurance companies to raise premiums after claims are filed.

The process is similar to the way an individual's auto insurer raises rates after at-fault accidents.

Erie County Prosecutor Kevin Baxter said he does not recall a situation similar to the dueling lawsuits filed in Perkins Township. Baxter said he could recall instances of one government filing against another government over who had legal right to do something, but couldn't remember a situation quite like the Dwelle vs. Fant and McClung, Matthews vs. Dwelle lawsuits.

* Holly Abrams contributed to this story