SCRANTON -- Anticipating that his decision to sue the county could get him fired, Luzerne County Chief Public Defender Al Flora Jr. filed a federal lawsuit seeking an injunction that would prevent the county from removing him from office.
The suit, filed on behalf of Flora by the American Civil Liberties Union, says Flora suspects County Manager Robert Lawton will seek to terminate him in retaliation for a class-action lawsuit Flora filed Tuesday in Luzerne County Court that seeks to force the county to hire more attorneys for the Public Defender‚??s Office.
That lawsuit, which was also filed by the ACLU, contends the county is violating its constitutional duty to provide representation to indigent defendants by failing to adequately fund the Public Defender‚??s Office.
The suit against the county says Flora was forced to limit the types of cases his office would accept due to an overwhelming caseload attorneys are handling. To date, more than 300 persons who qualified for a public defender have been denied representation due to the policy.
The federal lawsuit is based on alleged threats of retaliation that were made against Flora by former interim county manager Tom Pribula after Flora publicly spoke out about staffing concerns and the possibility he might sue the county.
The suit cites a budget meeting held on Jan. 12 at which Pribula stated he believed Flora would sue the county. Pribula then went on to note that Flora is selected by the county manager with county council‚??s confirmation, and that they could replace Flora if there was a ‚??lack of cooperation,‚?Ě the suit says.
Since learning of Pribula‚??s comments, Flora has refrained from making public comments about staffing issues in his office, the suit says.
That threatened retaliation creates a ‚??profound chill‚?Ě on Flora‚??s right to express himself about a matter of public importance and sends a message that a ‚??lack of cooperation with the county‚??s budget choices ‚?Ľ will be punished,‚?Ě the suit says.
The suit contends any personnel action taken against Flora would violate his federal constitutional right to free speech and due process, and would also constitute wrongful discharge. Equally important, any action taken against Flora would hurt the county lawsuit because it would no longer have standing to proceed with the suit if he‚??s no longer the chief public defender.
Witold ‚??Vic‚?Ě Walczak, an attorney with the ACLU, said the suit is a pre-emptive move aimed at preventing the county from taking action against Flora.
Should the county do so before a ruling is made on the federal action, it would virtually assure a second federal suit against the county, he said.
‚??If they want to fire Flora, they do so at their own peril,‚?Ě Walczak said.