Lawsuit filed against Niles Twp.Published 8:07pm Tuesday, February 7, 2012
The conflict at Niles Township has heated up once again. A township employee has filed a lawsuit against the township alleging Treasurer Jim Ringler intimidated her and has made her working conditions unbearable.
Stefanie Woodrick, zoning administrator for Niles Township, filed the three-count lawsuit last month and is seeking damages for lost wages, emotional and physical distress, humiliation and loss of reputation.
The total damages is not included in the suit but it says “the amount in controversy exceeds $25,000.”
According to the lawsuit, Woodrick is arguing township officials denied her request for a raise in August 2011 because she reported Ringler’s alleged wrongdoing — a violation of the Whistleblower Protection Act.
Woodrick submitted the written complaint against Ringler to Township Supervisor Jim Kidwell in late 2010, which sparked a third party investigation in February 2011.
In the suit, the plaintiff claims she is receiving “substantially less pay than other zoning administrators in Michigan.”
Leonard White, an attorney out of St. Joseph who is representing Woodrick, said she is seeking damages for lost past and future wages.
“She should have been given the raise and she wasn’t,” he said.
According to the lawsuit, the conflict began in August 2010 when Ringler allegedly attempted to intimidate Woodrick into making illegal zoning changes that would have benefited his work as a real estate agent.
The lawsuit states that both Ringler and Township Clerk Marge Durm-Hiatt used “intimidation
and veiled threats” to try to get her to make the changes.
Woodrick is also suing the township for violating public policy by asking her to violate Michigan law. She claims that the township’s officials’ alleged conduct was a violation of the Michigan standard of conduct for public officers and employees.
There is dispute over the details of the confrontation between Woodrick and Ringler. In the lawsuit, Woodrick claims Ringler “yelled and screamed at her, placing her in fear for her physical safety.”
But Ringler painted a far different picture of the events in an interview with the Star in November.
“I asked her some tough questions she couldn’t answer,” he said. “I ask those questions to all zoning administrators all over the county. I can’t control how she feels.”
The third party investigation, conducted by Kalamazoo attorney Kurt McCamman of Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone, revealed that Ringler hadn’t violated township policy.
But Woodrick is calling the investigation into question, arguing the conduct of Ringler and Durm-Hiatt was not “properly investigated.”
According to the lawsuit, the results of the investigation were “nothing more than a political ploy, orchestrated by Ringler and Durm-Hiatt.”
Woodrick alleges that the township restricted the investigation to determining whether Ringler’s conduct violated the township’s employee manual, which doesn’t apply to elected officials like Ringler.
In an interview last October, Kidwell said something similar when he said the scope of the investigation was too narrow.
“He (McCamman) was only to investigate whether the township employee policy was violated. Had I known that was the case, I would have stopped the investigation at the beginning,” he said.
The township is still waiting on a summary report of the findings from McCamman. The township has been billed $7,400 for the investigation, but Kidwell has indicated the township won’t pay until it receives the report.
Since Woodrick’s complaint and the subsequent investigation of Ringler, she claims Ringler has threatened to eliminate her job and tried routinely to undermine her authority as zoning administrator. She also says Ringler has put her in a “bad light” to co-workers.
As a result, Woodrick claims her work environment has become “intolerable.”
The lawsuit also says she would have quit by now had she not needed the health insurance to cover medical costs for a health condition. She claims her medical condition has worsened as a result of Ringler’s alleged retaliatory actions as well.
Ringler, Durm-Hiatt and Kidwell declined to comment for this story based on the recommendation of the township attorney.