A lawsuit originally filed in 2019 over legal fees paid out by the Town of Summerfield has made it to the NC Court of Appeals nearly two years later – and that court is finally going to hear the suit on Wednesday, Feb. 10.
The case was brought against the Town of Summerfield by three vocal Summerfield residents – Dwayne Crawford, Don Wendelken and Danny Nelson – to force the town to stop covering legal fees for Town Councilmember Dianne Laughlin in 2019.
Former Summerfield Town Councilmember Todd Rotruck lost his seat on the Town Council in the spring of 2017 after a residency challenge against him was upheld by the Guilford County Board of Elections. Though Rotruck’s complaint was really against Summerfield, legal stipulations and strategy called for him to advance his complaint in court by naming Laughlin as the defendant. When Rotruck filed his suit, the town covered Laughlin’s defense. NC General Statute 1-521 covering this type of hearing states: “It is unlawful to appropriate any public funds to the payment of counsel fees in any such action.”
However, the town attorney at that time argued that the town was perfectly within its rights to handle the cost of Laughlin’s defense.
Those legal costs were up to about $40,000 when the lawsuit over payment was filed.
Now, a panel of three judges in Raleigh will finally address the case – though the judges won’t hear oral arguments from either side on February 10.
Wendelken said his attorney had told him that the fact that the judges weren’t hearing oral arguments didn’t provide any clue as to how they would decide. The judges generally save oral arguments for their most difficult cases, he said.
Wendelken said that, in his mind, this was a pretty cut and dried case.
This doesn’t mean a decision will be coming on Feb. 10 – or anytime soon after for that matter. The appellate court may take weeks, months or even more than a year to offer an opinion after the appeal is heard.
The wheels of justice are, as everyone knows, slow; and they are even slower during a pandemic. Wendelken said this week that, when he didn’t hear anything back on the status of the appeal for so long, he’d wondered what had become of it, but then, this week, he got his answer: The case would get its day in appellate court.