Robinson Donovan recently won a high profile jury verdict in favor of its client, the Town of West Springfield, in a lawsuit brought by a former Principal Assessor who claimed that he was wrongfully terminated by the mayor in violation of public policy. The case, which was tried by Patricia Rapinchuk, involved the assessor’s taxation of non-profit “social clubs”, who had previously been considered exempt from real estate taxes and had never before been taxed, and the social clubs’ applications for abatement of those taxes. Specifically, the assessor refused to consider the abatement applications because the social clubs had not paid the first tax bills. He claimed that it would have violated the law to do so and that the mayor terminated him for this reason. Another assessor testified that she could legally consider the abatement applications.
The mayor, who was newly elected, had become of aware of the plight of the social clubs during his campaign, and had expressed concern that the clubs would not be able to pay the bills, one of which was in excess of $25,000. He also recognized the significant charitable work of some of the social clubs, and the benefits the clubs provided to the community, which included the donation of the use of their properties for various purposes such as the Special Olympics, fundraisers and numerous school and civic events. The mayor testified that he tried to assist the social clubs, which were run by volunteers who did not understand the abatement process, by passing on information he sought from the assessor, and asking the assessor to keep him informed on the status of the applications. He also testified that the assessor told him twice that the clubs did not have to pay the tax in order to be considered for abatement, which the assessor denied.
The mayor testified that the assessor told him at a meeting held on the abatement applications that the clubs had not paid their taxes, that the assessor could not consider the applications, and there was nothing the mayor could do about it. The assessor’s testimony about the meeting was in conflict with the mayor’s. The mayor felt set up and betrayed by the assessor and accused him of misinforming him and withholding important information from him. After considering the situation further, the mayor, who had the sole authority to remove department heads under the town’s charter, reached the conclusion that he could no longer trust the assessor, and terminated him.
The jury, after a brief deliberation, found that the assessor was not terminated in violation of public policy and returned a verdict for the town.
For more information, see MassLive.com.