We missed this National Law Journal article when it was originally published on December 5th, but thought it was worth re-posting here. We note that according to the article some of the public defenders and state attorneys are seeking legal counsel to look into their termination by Matt Shirk and Angela Corey, respectively. I am sure they can always talk to their union representatives at the State Employees Attorneys Guild (SEAG). You know, after thinking on it, I guess it’s a good thing that Shirk’s new office manager person has all that human resources experience with the City of Jacksonville - it appears it may be needed.
Here’s the article:
Public defender, state attorney firings roil the ranks in Florida
December 5, 2008MIAMI — Attorneys who were fired en masse by a newly elected public defender and state attorney in Jacksonville, Fla., are considering legal action.
Meanwhile, the incident is igniting controversy and debates about whether employees of these offices should be civil service employees and whether the position of public defender and state attorney should be appointed rather than elected.
The Fourth Circuit in Florida, which includes Jacksonville and the counties of Duval, Nassau and Clay, both elected a new state attorney and public defender in recent months. Public Defender Matt Shirk and State Attorney Angela Corey, both Republicans, defeated longtime employees of their respective offices.
Shirk, 35, worked as an assistant public defender in the office for five years and as a private attorney for four years. He defeated Bill White, a Democrat who worked in the public defender’s office for 34 years. Shirk, who takes over the position on Jan. 6, fired 10 attorneys from the office on Nov. 21. He did so by sending an e-mail to White, telling him to fire the attorneys. In the e-mail, he spelled several of their names wrong.
A documentary’s fallout?
The fired attorneys include Pat McGuinness and Ann Finnell, the team who won an acquittal for a murder suspect that became the subject of an Academy Award-winning documentary. Murder on a Sunday Morning told the story of how the two assistant public defenders convinced a jury that 15-year-old Brenton Butler did not kill a Georgia tourist and that his confession was coerced by Jacksonville police.
McGuinness, who served 31 years in the office, said he believes he was fired in retribution for the murder case, pointing to statements Shirk made during his campaign about supporting police officers as well as his backing by the police union. McGuinness, who is setting up a private law office with Finnell, said he and other fired attorneys are consulting attorneys about taking possible legal action against Shirk.
“I’ll be consulting legal counsel about my options,” he said. “He fired 10 of the most experienced attorneys in this office without taking a single personnel file or interviewing them.”
Shirk did not return repeated calls and e-mails for comment.
Newly elected State Attorney Angela Corey took a different approach after she was elected. Like Shirk, Corey beat out the heir apparent to the office, 20-year veteran Jay Plotkin, on a tough-on-crime platform in a city with rising crime.
Corey asked all 400 employees in her office, including 80 attorneys, to resign. They were then allowed to reapply for their positions. Corey said she rehired 85% of the lawyers and kept 75% to 80% of the staffers. She insists that since the employees are not civil servants but appointed positions, she had every right to fire them.
“Their term of service ends with [the former state attorney],” she said. “It’s the same with the Obama administration — Bush asked everyone at the White House to resign. Every single person knows they serve at the pleasure of the state attorney.”
Corey said she consulted with many people before making the personnel changes and read state statutes carefully. She said she’s heard that some employees she fired have sought legal representation. “That’s fine,” she said.
Views of whether Shirk and Corey were within their rights and whether the fired attorneys have legal cases is mixed.
In 2005, a federal jury in New Orleans decided that the city’s first black district attorney discriminated against dozens of white employees by firing them days after taking office and replacing them with black employees. The plaintiffs were awarded $1.8 million in back pay and damages. DeCorte v. Jordan, No. 03-1239 (E.D. La.).
Michael Casey, a labor and employment lawyer in the Miami office of Epstein Becker & Green, said that the Jacksonville firings could be actionable. Even though the employees and lawyers are not civil servants, they are protected by “the same laws that prohibit discrimination and retaliation as everyone else.
“There could be age discrimination issues, or gender discrimination if most of those fired are women,” he said. “Whether these result in potential claims, you’d have to look at the facts more closely.”
Bob Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University Shepard Broad Law Center in Fort Lauderdale-Davie, Fla., said the firings could be actionable, but such cases are difficult to prove. “Florida is an at-will state, and employees can be fired at any time,” he said. “However, if they feel their reputation or ability to get jobs in the future has been comprised, or they feel this was somehow done outside of normal channels, there could be a case. If they were recently told, ‘go buy a house, your job is fine,” they could have a case.”
Recent employee evaluations could also factor into any case, Jarvis added. But Skip Babb, president of the Florida Public Defenders Association and a public defender in Florida’s Fifth Judicial Circuit, said it’s not surprising or unusual that Corey and Shirk would want to appoint new people and defended their actions.
“When a newly elected official comes in, they want to bring in their own people,” he said. “It’s like Bill Parcells taking over the Miami Dolphins — he’s going to bring in his own people in the top positions. It’s very simple.”