County Attorney Fired Without Due Process, Court Affirms

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By Kevin McGowan

Sept. 9 — A Pennsylvania county that dismissed an assistant county solicitor without a pre-termination hearing violated her due process rights, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled ( Mancini v. Northampton Cty. , 2016 BL 294323, 3d Cir., No. 15-2790, 9/9/16 ).

The decision is significant because it holds no “reorganization exception” limits the due process rights of a public employee who can be fired only for cause.

Northampton County argued Jill Mancini was terminated in 2014 as part of a departmental reorganization and therefore lacks procedural due process rights under the 14th Amendment.

The county said a “limited reorganization exception” to due process exists if a reorganization or other cost-cutting measure results in the dismissal of an employee.

On an issue of first impression for the circuit, the court declined to recognize such an exception when a jury reasonably could find the purported reorganization was a pretext for targeting the terminated employee.

It therefore affirmed a $94,232 jury verdict in Mancini’s favor.

Targeted for Dismissal

A due process exception might exist if the government engages in “a legitimate person-neutral reorganization,” Judge L. Felipe Restrepo wrote in an opinion joined by Judges Julio M. Fuentes and Michael A. Chagares.

But that wasn’t true here, as a newly elected county executive and newly appointed county solicitor told Mancini her full-time assistant solicitor job was being eliminated, offered no cost justifications for their decision and denied Mancini any opportunity to move to other available positions.

The jury rejected Mancini’s First Amendment claim that the two county officials, both Republicans, were motivated by Mancini’s political affiliation as a Democrat.

But the court said the evidence “was more than sufficient” to support the jury’s finding that the officials targeted Mancini based on her “personal performance” and the reorganization was a pretext for firing her.

No ‘Sham’ Reorganization Exception

A government employer can’t use a “sham” reorganization as a way to fire protected career service employees without the notice and hearing that due process requires, the court said.

The county argued no due process claim is available if a layoff results from a “reorganization in fact,” regardless of the employer’s possible improper motive.

But the court rejected that argument. “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 court said.

A government employer can’t target an individual employee for termination and then violate the worker’s due process rights “under the guise of a reorganization,” the court said.

To hold otherwise would allow public employers “to cry ‘reorganization’ in order to circumvent the constitutional and statutory protections” for employees who can only be fired for cause, the court said.

Gross McGinley represented Mancini. Thomas Thomas & Hafer represented Northampton County.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kevin McGowan in Washington at kmcgowan@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan J. McGolrick at smcgolrick@bna.com

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