On Thursday afternoon, May 30, three prominent Summerfield citizens – Dwayne Crawford, Don Wendelken and Danny Nelson – filed a lawsuit against the Town of Summerfield to force it to cease paying legal fees for the defense of Town Councilmember Dianne Laughlin in a “quo warranto” case brought by former Summerfield Town Councilmember Todd Rotruck.
Rotruck lost his seat on the Town Council in April 2017 after a residency challenge against him was upheld by the Guilford County Board of Elections. In October of last year, the Summerfield Town Council named Laughlin to fill that vacant seat and Rotruck brought the quo warranto case against her.
Rotruck and his attorney do not maintain that Laughlin did anything wrong, but she is, by law, the one who must be named in this type of action.
Quo warranto actions are ones brought when an elected leader claims to have been unjustly unseated. They are governed by provisions in North Carolina General Statutes, Chapter 1, Article 41 – the article that covers cases such as this where there’s a claim of unjust removal from office. It states that the Attorney General “shall” grant permission to requests to sue upon the tendering of satisfactory security to indemnify the state. That case was heard earlier this year but it could resume later depending on the outcome of Rotruck’s appeal, which is expected to be heard this summer.
The Town of Summerfield has already paid some money for Laughlin’s legal defense; however, the new lawsuit filed Thursday charges that the town was in violation of state statute when it did so.
The three who filed the lawsuit and some others in Summerfield say they don’t want to see any more taxpayer dollars being used to defend Laughlin. For months, some citizens have been arguing vehemently that Rotruck’s quo warranto case was against Laughlin and they point out that the town wasn’t named as a party.
NC General Statute covering quo warranto hearings state: “All actions to try the title or right to any State, county or municipal office shall stand for trial at the next session of court after the summons and complaint have been served for 30 days, regardless of whether issues were joined more than 10 days before the session; and it is the duty of the judge to expedite the trial of these actions and to give them precedence over all others, civil or criminal. It is unlawful to appropriate any public funds to the payment of counsel fees in any such action.”
That last line is the one most often cited by those making the charge that the town cannot legally pay for the defense.
Alternatively, Summerfield Town Attorney Bill Hill – who has announced his resignation once a suitable replacement is found – has told the Town Council that the town is well within its rights to pay Laughlin’s legal expenses.
Now, both sides will have the chance for their arguments to be heard in court, and Summerfield, which has seen a lot of lawsuits and allegations in recent years, has another one on the books.
Wendelken said it is wrong for the town to fund the defense.
“We are doing this on behalf of the citizens,” Wendelken said. “You can’t use public funds for a quo warranto case.”
““They’ve already paid $40,000,” Wendelken added.