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10/31/2019 9:12:00 PM
Judge may rule on lawsuit against Summerfield this week

SUMMERFIELD - North Carolina Superior Court Judge Martin McGee may rule later this week on a lawsuit filed by three Summerfield residents - one of whom has since withdrawn his name from the suit - arguing the town unlawfully spent taxpayer money for the legal defense of council member Dianne Laughlin.

McGee heard arguments this past Monday, Oct. 28, in the case in which the Town of Summerfield is seeking dismissal of the suit filed by Summerfield residents Dwayne Crawford and Don Wendelken. The third plaintiff, mayoral candidate Danny Nelson, withdrew from the suit Monday, according to his lawyer, Gavin Reardon.

McGee told those at the hearing he wants to issue a ruling by the end of the week, said Reardon and Summerfield Town Manager Scott Whitaker, who attended the hearing in the Guilford County Courthouse in Greensboro.

The three residents sued the Town, Mayor Pro Tem Dena Barnes and council members Laughlin, John O'Day and Reece Walker in May after Laughlin was appointed to the seat previously held by Councilman Todd Rotruck. The four council members voted in favor of the Town paying to defend Laughlin; council member Teresa Pegram was not named in the lawsuit because she opposed the decision to use taxpayers' money to defend Laughlin, believing Laughlin should use personal funds for her defense.

Rotruck was removed from office in April 2018, just four months after being sworn in, after the Guilford County Board of Elections unanimously voted he hadn't established permanent residency in Summerfield. Later in the year, Superior Court Judge John Craig issued an order affirming the election board's decision.

Rotruck appealed Craig's ruling and as his appeal was awaiting a hearing by the North Carolina Court of Appeals, he filed another lawsuit in January of this year naming Laughlin as the defendant. Although he did not make any allegations of personal wrongdoing on Laughlin's part, he sought relief in the nature of "quo warranto," a legal action used to resolve a dispute over whether a person has the legal right to hold the public office that he or she occupies.

In the suit, Rotruck asked the court to direct the Summerfield Town Council to remove Laughlin from public office and allow him to take his seat back on the council until his appeal of the earlier ruling was heard by the state Court of Appeals.

Superior Court Judge David Hall heard Rotruck's suit against Laughlin in February, but made no decision; he said doing so would put the parties involved at risk of inconsistent judgments. He confirmed the suit could be re-opened if the state Court of Appeals overturned the earlier ruling by Craig. In early September a three-judge panel with the Court of Appeals released its findings that the Guilford County Board of Elections (BOE) had committed no errors of law when ordering that Rotruck's voter registration be changed from his property address in Summerfield to his home address on Lewiston Road in Greensboro, which ultimately led to his seat on Summerfield Town Council being declared vacant.

In Monday's hearing, lawyers for Summerfield and the council members argued for the dismissal of the suit by Crawford and Wendelken on the grounds that the suit replicates Rotruck's suit against Laughlin.

"It's all the same subject matter," Summerfield Town Attorney Bill Hill said to the council in September, explaining the town's position in the case. "You don't get two bites at the apple."

The town also argued that Rotruck's suit against Laughlin "was not a valid quo warranto action," Hill said in September. He told the council that Rotruck didn't have "a legitimate argument of being denied a legal right."

In court Monday, Reardon disagreed with Summerfield's position. The latest suit isn't "a do over of a prior action," he said in an interview after the hearing.

"The statute is very simple: it says that you can't spend public funds for the defense of a quo warranto action," Reardon said. "Obviously, Mrs. Laughlin was entitled to a defense, but she had to pay for it herself."

Judge McGee may decide to dismiss the suit or say it's not dismissed, Reardon said. Or the judge may decide to remand the case to Judge Hall since he handled the quo warranto action.

"They are all tied together," Reardon said. "It may make sense to have just one judge consider it."

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