3rd Circuit Vindicates Solicitor Fired for Politics

      (CN) — A former county solicitor in Pennsylvania is entitled to $94,000 after a Republican county executive planned a “sham reorganization” as a pretext to fire her because she supported his Democratic rival, the Third Circuit ruled.
     In January, a federal jury awarded Jill Mancini, a former assistant solicitor for Northampton County, Pa., $94,000 in damages after finding she was fired without due process. She also won $186,000 in attorneys’ fees.
     Mancini openly supported the Democratic candidate for Northampton County’s executive position during the 2013 executive race, but the Republican John Brown won the election.
     Brown claimed her dismissal was simply part of his plan to reorganize the solicitor’s office, which eliminated two full-time positions and replaced them with two additional part-time positions. Mancini was not offered either of the new part-time positions.
     However, Mancini did not receive formal written notice of her termination until a letter dated January 27, 2014, told her that her position had been eliminated as of January 23 — five days prior to the notice.
     Brown argued that Mancini was not hired under the appropriate procedures, and therefore did not qualify as a career employee.
     A jury decided that Mancini did qualify as a career employee and therefore could not be terminated without just cause and the opportunity to respond to the elimination of her position. It dismissed her First Amendment political retaliation claim.
     On appeal, Brown asked the Eighth Circuit to find that there is “an exception to the ordinary requirements of procedural due process when a government employee with a protected property interest in her job is dismissed as part of a departmental reorganization that results in the elimination of her position.”
     The Philadelphia-based appeals court ruled in Mancini’s favor Friday that “a reorganization exception to constitutional procedural due process cannot apply as a matter of law where, as here, there is a genuine factual dispute about whether the reorganization was pretext for an unlawful termination.”
     Judge Luis Restrepo, writing for the three-judge panel, said there was plenty of evidence in this case for the jury to find that the reorganization plan was a pretext for firing Mancini.
     “We are aware of no court that has permitted the government to subvert the requirements of the Fourteenth Amendment with a sham reorganization,” Restrepo said. “If the government were allowed to undertake sham reorganizations to dismiss an employee who was otherwise entitled to due process, Northampton’s proposed ‘reorganization exception’ would eviscerate a public employee’s procedural due process rights altogether.”
     The panel also affirmed the award of $186,000 in attorneys’ fees to Mancini, even though this figure is twice what she won in damages.
     It said the lower court “made a reasoned judgment that the time Mancini’s attorneys spent on her unsuccessful claims did not warrant a reduced fee.”

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