Three Armstrong County public defenders who were fired last month filed a civil lawsuit against the Armstrong County Board of Commissioners in federal court in Pittsburgh.
The lawsuit, filed Dec. 2, charged the county commissioners with wrongful dismissal, violation of terms and conditions of employment contracts and multiple violations of the Sunshine Act.
Public defenders also argue that they should have been entitled to insurance benefits and a pension like other county employees.
Since the layoff of the three attorneys, Armstrong County has restructured its public defenders office from four part-time contract defenders to a full-time public defender, an assistant and future employees, according to Aaron S. Poole, the administrator. county chief, who released a statement to the Tribune-Review.
County hired its new full-time public defender, James Sprestersbach, on Nov. 7, about four days after three of the four part-time defenders were fired.
Former Chief Public Defender Chuck Pascal and Deputy Public Defenders Stephanie McFadden and James Wray were notified by email late in the November 3 workday that they had lost their jobs, according to Pascal.
The attorney representing the public defenders, Tom King of Dillion, McCandless, King, Coulter and Graham of Butler, sought an injunction in federal court to have the defenders reinstated.
The lawsuit also seeks back wages, reimbursement of lost benefits, other benefits, attorney fees and court costs.
“Our case involves a group of dedicated employees who have spent many years representing residents as the county is required to do,” King said. “They fulfilled their duty in a professional manner.”
The county did not hold a hearing on the employment issues, as guaranteed by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, King said. Additionally, county commissioners have repeatedly violated the Sunshine Act regarding the employment of defenders, he said.
“There should have been discussions in public, and the decision and actions should have been in public.”
Poole said the county decided to restructure its public defender’s office after receiving complaints from clients, colleagues and department heads. The commissioners tried several times to meet and discuss the complaints with the office, but “they received no meaningful response,” Poole said.
Since the restructuring, the commissioners have received a lot of positive feedback and complaints have decreased, Poole said.
King did not comment on Poole’s statement.
“We will have a great discovery opportunity to see exactly what the commissioners were talking about,” he said. “The commissioners did this behind closed doors.”
Pascal, who is vice chairman of the Leechburg council and former vice president of the Public Defenders Association of Pennsylvania, had worked part-time for Armstrong’s public defender’s office for 17 years.
The office typically handles between 400 and 450 cases at any given time, he said. The office has been without an office manager and secretary for most of the year, Pascal said, as the county fired the worker over his objection.
“Lawyers at the Public Defender’s Office are dedicated to representing indigent clients despite the office’s chronic underfunding,” he said. “The newly hired Chief Public Defender is a very good lawyer, and I’m sure he is dedicated to the job and to the clients. But he also walks into an underfunded, underfunded office.
Armstrong County ranked second to last in a study by the Legislative Committee on State Budget and Finance last year examining how much each county spends on its public defender services per capita: $3.25.
“Moral in every county department is low,” Pascal said. “In general, county employees are underpaid for hard work.”
Mary Ann Thomas is editor of Tribune-Review. You can contact Mary by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .