Network Firm News

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

On July 20, 2006, Goodell, DeVries, Leech & Dann, LLP obtained summary judgment on behalf of Caroline County, Maryland in an employment matter that has been closely followed by counties across the state. Attorneys Linda Woolf and Nichole Nesbitt represented Caroline County in Runnels, et al. v. Caroline County, et al. (Worcester County Cir. Ct. Case No. 23-C-04-1174), a case brought by two former employees of the Caroline County State's Attorney's Office. The employees, who held administrative positions in the office, argued that their First Amendment rights to free speech were violated when the newly elected State's Attorney terminated their employment, allegedly because the plaintiffs supported his opponent in the race for election. They also contended that they were required to work overtime for which they were not properly compensated.

In asserting their claims against both the State of Maryland and Caroline County, the plaintiffs argued that the two entities were "joint employers" for the purposes of the wrongful termination and overtime claims. They also contended that, while the incoming State's Attorney possessed the final authority to terminate their employment, the County's acquiescence in this decision constituted a "conspiracy" for which it could be held directly liable. Ms. Woolf and Ms. Nesbitt argued on summary judgment that the County was not a joint employer of the plaintiffs because it did not possess the power to hire and fire them, did not supervise their performance, did not set their work schedules, and did not require them to work overtime. They also argued that the County did not "conspire" to deprive them of any rights, because the decision rested with the State's Attorney, a State-elected official.

The Honorable Theodore R. Eschenburg of the Worcester County Circuit Court agreed with the County and entered summary judgment on the County's behalf as to all counts. He held in his memorandum opinion that Caroline County is not a "joint employer" of the administrative staff of the State's Attorney's Office and did not conspire with the incoming State's Attorney to terminate the plaintiffs' employment. Because each county in the State of Maryland is required to fund a State's Attorney's Office and pay the wages of its staff, many questions have arisen as to the extent of the employment relationship between a county, the state's attorney for that county, and the employees of the state's attorney's office. Until now, there was very little guidance on this issue. The court's opinion in Runnels is favorable to counties across the state and may help to make the issues more clear.

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