Judge Dismisses Claims By Former County Assessor - Leesburg Today Online—Daily News Coverage of Loudoun County, Leesburg, Ashburn: News

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Judge Dismisses Claims By Former County Assessor

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Posted: Monday, January 7, 2013 1:00 pm

The lawsuit brought against several county government administrators and employees of the Office of the County Assessor has essentially been brought to a close.

This morning, a visiting Circuit Court judge dismissed all the counts against county employees in the $10 million lawsuit filed by fired County Assessor Todd Kaufman.

He was placed on leave April 18 as a result of a complaint from a staff member in his office and was terminated by the Board of Supervisors in June 5 following an investigation.

Kaufman filed a civil complaint in July naming as defendants County Administrator Tim Hemstreet, County Attorney John R. Roberts, Supervising Appraiser John Nelson and James Cross, the outside investigator who conducted a probe of Kaufman’s conduct leading to his firing, along with his company Crossroads Mediation Services. Later, after the affidavits from the number of assessor’s office employees contacted during Cross’ investigation were made public, those employees were added as defendants in the suit.

The lawsuit made public the initial complaint submitted by Nelson last March as well as the report from Cross, including the employees’ statements, that the Board of Supervisors reviewed in closed session in June before voting to terminate Kaufman’s contract. In his letter Nelson described an alleged “hostile work environment” created by Kaufman, and named six “areas of concern” regarding Kaufman's performance: potentially criminal activity; violation of the county's policies on vehicle usage; insubordination; creating a hostile work environment based on discriminatory practices involving age, ethnicity and religious beliefs; sexual harassment; and threats of physical violence.

Kaufman’s lawsuit included 10 counts, including charges of defamation, tortious interference, gross negligence and conspiracy. Kaufman was seeking a total of $10 million in damages—up to $1 million for each count.

But Judge R. Terrence Ney granted the demurrer motions filed on behalf of all the county employees, with attorney Julia B. Judkins arguing against all of the pleadings included in the complaint.

Ney ruled that the information included in the affidavits from the assessor’s office employees described a negative work environment and did not attack Kaufman’s ability as an assessor. He also noted that a majority of the affidavits included in Cross’ report supported Nelson’s original letter—a letter that was made up of things “he observed or heard” and that much was a matter of opinion.

“They’re not [defamation],” Ney said. “These are, ‘I don’t like the way you’re doing this; I don’t like the way you’re doing that.’”

Ney also made the point that Kaufman was an at-will employee and the Board of Supervisors could have fired him “because they didn’t like his shoes.”

Ney ruled that there was no publication of Nelson’s letter and allegations against Kaufman except to the Board of Supervisors on “those persons in the chain of command.” He said both Hemstreet and Roberts were “plainly” acting within the rights of their office and under the qualified privilege position.

Kaufman’s attorney Peter Cohen argued that Hemstreet and Roberts’ qualified privilege did not extend to their actions regarding the former assessor under the malicious exemption. When queried by Ney, Cohen said the two men “knew the statements were false and they knowingly republished false statements to the Board of Supervisors.”

“Their obligation to report does not supersede the requirement not to defame,” Cohen argued.

But Ney countered with a question: “How can the Board of Supervisors ever make an evaluation of any county employee if it can’t be brought to their attention? That’s why it is privileged is it not?”

Ney ruled that Cohen’s argument of malicious intent was not supported by the case, noting specifically that Hemstreet had reported very positively about Kaufman and would have “no reason” to defame him.

As for lawsuit’s claims of tortuous interference and conspiracy, Ney said since the defendants were “all under the same roof, all under the same tent, and all part of the Loudoun County government” they “could not have conspired with each other.” He also ruled that the case was not a negligence case and none of the allegations rose to the level of willful negligence, and said there was “no basis whatsoever” for punitive damages.

“This is a workplace issue,” Ney said in conclusion, saying “Mr. Kaufman might have turned this over more in his mind before bringing this suit.”

Welcome to the discussion.

19 comments:

  • David Dickinson posted at 1:12 pm on Fri, Jan 18, 2013.

    David Dickinson Posts: 980

    I think that post hits more to the core matter:

    "He found that many properties in the wealthy county were severely under-valued, to the tune of $18 billion below market rate, and corrected that. He also lowered the number of properties not paying taxes from 4,000 to about 1,100. That perhaps made him about 2,900 more enemies, though this also brought in much more revenue for Loudoun County."

    Sounds more like a hero to me.

    I'd be interested in how much of those improvements were on the commercial side versus residential?

    As has been said many times, this just smells very bad. If it was just a matter of re-arranging the dept and he was, in effect, laid off then why push a great public servant out under a cloud?

    Until all the facts come out, this is very suspicious.

    Glad to hear he appealed. The judge sounded like he had a chip on his shoulder or, I'll just go ahead and say it, a donation in his pocket.

     
  • comchay999 posted at 11:51 am on Fri, Jan 18, 2013.

    comchay999 Posts: 2

    enlightening article in today's Post:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-state-of-nova/post/firing-loudoun-assessor-todd-kaufman--was-it-part-of-plan-to-reorganize-assessment-in-loudoun/2013/01/17/b2940d64-60df-11e2-9940-6fc488f3fecd_blog.html#pagebreak

     
  • LegalEagle posted at 10:27 pm on Mon, Jan 14, 2013.

    LegalEagle Posts: 1

    In reviewing what is available on this case, I am not following the legal reasoning for a dismissal. In fact, much of the information is contrary to or was not part of the original complaint letter which covers a 6 year time span. I do agree with the judge that there is a lot of "I don't like the way you are doing this and I don't like they way you are doing that" from complaining employees. Most likely typical government office with high performance demands. So why the public hanging when by all accounts the man was performing well in his job function for quite some time? An individual is not exempt from defamation or conspiracy because they are an employee within an organization. The same rules apply and employment is not a factor. As long as the legal principles are there, which they appear to be, there is enough to move a trial forward without delay. I also didn't see where Kaufman was provided the opportunity to defend himself against the accusations or state his case to anyone. This case is peppered with controversy and conflict and goesbeyond a manager/employee issue. Appeal.

     
  • GetitRight1 posted at 3:39 pm on Fri, Jan 11, 2013.

    GetitRight1 Posts: 4

    True and this is only one of many controversial issues that are becoming more and more frequent and concerning.

     
  • David Dickinson posted at 1:26 pm on Fri, Jan 11, 2013.

    David Dickinson Posts: 980

    "this sucker is dead, forever."

    Perhaps the case is, but the issue isn't.

     
  • Knights of the 5th Floor posted at 12:54 pm on Fri, Jan 11, 2013.

    Knights of the 5th Floor Posts: 3

    Yawn. Don't forget to put a 'Don't Tread on Me' sticker on your vehicle.


    "Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity."
    - Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968)

     
  • GetitRight1 posted at 10:05 am on Fri, Jan 11, 2013.

    GetitRight1 Posts: 4

    The proverbial, "I am just going to take my ball and go home" or "That's the way it is because I said so" response. Not an unexpected comment from someone representing a 1 Harrison Street address. Elections will be here soon enough and we can clean house. Hopefully there will be local races for all seats including the Constitutional Officers. A place where change is long overdue. Maybe then we can get some transparency, clarity, and representation from our local government.

     
  • Knights of the 5th Floor posted at 9:07 am on Fri, Jan 11, 2013.

    Knights of the 5th Floor Posts: 3

    Dismissed with prejudice - i.e. this sucker is dead, forever. Thanks for playing though.

     
  • GetitRight1 posted at 7:48 pm on Thu, Jan 10, 2013.

    GetitRight1 Posts: 4

    KOT5F: Thank you for providing the public with a perfect example of the mentality Kaufman most likely had to contend with on a daily basis; whether it was from someone from the 5th floor, 1st floor, inside the building, or outside on one of "many, many" never ending smoking breaks. This isn’t a right to work case as you “obtusely” suggest. It sounds like your view of the goings on are tainted from whatever floor you are nesting and laying eggs on. I hope he “fights on” and appeals the court’s decision. He is well within his rights to do so. Seems like this story could go along with the "Roosting Vulture" story.

     
  • David Dickinson posted at 7:27 pm on Thu, Jan 10, 2013.

    David Dickinson Posts: 980

    Certainly, as an at-will employee he can be fired for any and all reasons.

    But, if you are doing an extremely good job, then why would they fire you? What was the motivation? That is the key question.

     
  • Knights of the 5th Floor posted at 2:14 pm on Thu, Jan 10, 2013.

    Knights of the 5th Floor Posts: 3

    My God you people are obtuse. Todd Kaufman was an at-will employee which means he could have been fired for good cause, bad cause or no cause at all. You even had the judge in the case quoted as saying it could have been because the Board of Supervisors didn't like his shoes. But my favorite quote of Judge Ney's came at the end of the story where he says "Mr. Kaufman might have turned this over more in his mind before bringing this suit." - in otherwords, thank you for having me reassigned to this case which has been not only a farce but a complete waste of time for all persons involved. Mr. Kaufman should have taken the more than generous golden parachute the Loudoun Co. Board of Supervisors provided him with and left town both humbly and quietly. Instead, he chose to "fight on" thus contributing heavily to the college funds of the children of the partners at Charlson, Bredehoft, Cohen, Brown & Sakata, P.C. Perhaps many many years from now after many many cans of tuna and many many years of living in a subordinate's basement, he will have some time to reflect on what has transpired and try to figure out how so many pictures of his face on a donkey's rectum have ened up on the internet? This is Marine One, signing off.

     
  • norges55 posted at 1:31 pm on Thu, Jan 10, 2013.

    norges55 Posts: 1042

    So are you saying Hemstreet has no idea about what he is talking about or is he not telling thge truth?

     
  • David Dickinson posted at 12:29 pm on Wed, Jan 9, 2013.

    David Dickinson Posts: 980

    "noting specifically that Hemstreet had reported very positively about Kaufman"

    And then Kaufman gets fired.

    Doesn't add up.

     
  • notwhatitseems posted at 7:10 pm on Tue, Jan 8, 2013.

    notwhatitseems Posts: 1

    The judge ignoring the facts and case law is disturbing.

     
  • David Dickinson posted at 4:54 pm on Tue, Jan 8, 2013.

    David Dickinson Posts: 980

    Personally Offended, this is very interesting. Thank you very much for the insight. Until I read your post I did not know that Nelson was the Commercial Supervising Appraiser. If there is any one staff job in the entire County that needs to be done 100% accurately it is that position. It is also the position most likely to fall prey to corruptive influences.

    "He was constantly being pressured to lower assessments. The commercial properties were assesssed at about 50% when he got here in 2006."

    Then he has done a great service to the taxpayers of Loudoun County by making the commercial entities pay their fair share.

    The judge's sharp tone in this decision disturbs me.

     
  • Personally Offended posted at 4:27 pm on Tue, Jan 8, 2013.

    Personally Offended Posts: 2

    DD: That is only the tip of the iceberg. I remember seeing an email years ago from the county Budget Officer arguing that assessments didn't need to be accurate. He said that accuracy didn't matter because the tax rate could be adjusted to collect the revenue the county needed. That alone is telling. Mr. Kaufman did everything he could to get the assessment levels correct so everyone would pay their fair share of taxes. He met resistance every step of the way and received little in support. He didn't care who the property owner was. He was constantly being pressured to lower assessments. The commercial properties were assesssed at about 50% when he got here in 2006. Nelson was the lead commercial appraiser at that time. Mr. Kaufman pushed the staff to bring values up to the required level, which upset a lot of property owners. Many appealed to the BOE, who lowered assessments without explanation. Mr. Kaufman had to deal with that alone also. He got little or no assistance from the County Attorney. He stood his ground and raised staff standards so they would perform at a higher level. Like any other office environment, some found any exuse not to do their job properly. Nelson for one felt the crunch and resented Mr. Kaufman's efforts. Mr. Kaufman put his head on the chopping block everyday to make sure staff were well trained, protected, and customer expectations were met. I enjoyed working with him and thought he was a breath of fresh air.

     
  • David Dickinson posted at 12:58 pm on Tue, Jan 8, 2013.

    David Dickinson Posts: 980

    Personally Offended, to be blunt, are you saying the Mr. Kaufman (in your opinion) was seeking accurate assessments and met resistance from people that wanted to low-ball assessments?

     
  • Personally Offended posted at 12:27 pm on Tue, Jan 8, 2013.

    Personally Offended Posts: 2

    As a long time Loudoun employee, I had the privilege of working directly with Mr. Kaufman daily. I don't know what happened in court other than what I read here, but the way this was handled stinks to high heaven. This was an obvious example of defamation, conspiracy, and retaliation by a group of unhappy employees and administrators with their heads in the sand. I was looking forward to this case going to trial so the public could get a glimpse of what really goes on in this building. Mr. Kaufman was one of the most productive, well organized, professional, and objective department heads within Loudoun Government. He tirelessly ran a professional department and he did his job as the County Assessor very well. He didn't turn a blind eye when difficult decisions had to be made. He made them and he wasn't influenced by petty politics or cronyism. Look at the assessment record in Loudoun before and after he was hired. The same goes for the operation of the office. The place was a disaster when he was hired. He fixed the office even though there was resistance to the positive changes he was making. His shortcoming in this organization was that he didn't roll-over and play dead. When he was asked for feedback or a recommendation, he gave it honestly. Something you don't see to often in this place. When he had to make a crucial decision, he did it objectively and professionally, even if it was not popular. This included dealing with unhappy staff who constantly complain and ask for more than they are willing to give. You actually knew where you stood with him. The ill conceived accusations made by John Nelson are shameful and not factual. Regardless of a lot of reaching efforts the "investigator" determined that there was NOT a hostile work environment as accurately reported early on by the Washington Post. I believe that I read that Nelson's complaint was referred to as "a drive by shooting". Seems appropriate. It is obvious that Nelson filed the complaint as a distraction because Mr. Kaufman was holding him accountable in his job as the Commercial Supervising Appraiser. From what I understand, other than the investigator, no one from the County ever discussed the matter directly with Mr. Kaufman. Absolutely shameful, poorly handled, and a waste of a good department head.

     
  • norges55 posted at 3:08 pm on Mon, Jan 7, 2013.

    norges55 Posts: 1042

    Wow!