Judge overrules part of recommendation in termination lawsuit against county

By Patrick Kernan - [email protected]
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A federal judge agreed with one recommendation and disagreed with another in litigation filed by former deputy budget/finance director Donna Magni against Luzerne County, seemingly a victory for both sides.

Magni issued claims against Budget/Finance Division Head Brian Swetz and former Manager Robert Lawton, claiming they terminated her in January 2014 in retaliation to statements she made to county council regarding a $15 million budget shortfall.

She also claims her termination violates the county’s home rule charter because she was fired without due process.

Earlier this year, U.S. Magistrate Judge Martin Carlson issued an recommendation to deny Magni’s litigation on both of these claims.

But in U.S. Judge Robert D. Mariani’s recent opinion, he upholds only one of Carlson’s recommendations.

Mariani agrees with Carlson on Magni’s first claim, saying she cannot make a First Amendment claim in regards to her termination.

According to Mariani’s opinion, Magni could have made such a claim if she were fired after speaking before council as a private citizen. However, since Magni made claims before the council based on information she could have gleaned only from her professional position, Mariani said Magni was not speaking as a private citizen, thus rendering her First Amendment claim moot.

However, Mariani said he disagrees with Carlson’s opinion of the home rule charter when he previously said Magni “was not entitled to the due process she claims.”

Mariani writes the charter, along with the county’s personnel code, “together create a cognizable property interest in the county’s ‘career service’ employees,” which would mean such employees would require due process before being terminated.

However, Mariani stopped short of determining if Magni, whom the defendants argued was an at-will or “exempt” employee that could be fired with no notice, was “career service.”

“Whether Plaintiff’s employment is properly viewed as ‘career service’ or ‘exempt service,’ however, is an issue for trial,” Mariani wrote.

Mariani set a conference call for counsel for this coming Monday.

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By Patrick Kernan

[email protected]

Reach Patrick Kernan at 570-991-6386 or on Twitter @PatKernan

Reach Patrick Kernan at 570-991-6386 or on Twitter @PatKernan