Ex-East Chicago health offical’s suit over firing proceeds in part

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A former East Chicago city employee who has alleged her constitutional rights were violated when she was fired from the city Health Department in 2015 has secured a partial victory from the Northern Indiana District Court, which also ruled partially in favor of city officials.

Terri Martin began serving as the executive director of the City of East Chicago Health Department in June 2013, and in December 2014 she signed a contract extending her employment from January 2015 through December 2017. The three-year extension of Martin’s employment was approved at a Board of Health meeting in November 2014, and the contract was drafted and presented to Martin shortly thereafter.

But then in September 2015, Martin was allegedly heard making racial slurs against an animal control employee whom she believed had neglected his duty to feed city-controlled dogs over the Labor Day weekend. A subsequent investigation, run by Sandra Favella, who was the city’s interim human resources director, and Tom Dabertin, an HR consultant, led to Martin’s termination on Oct. 13, 2015.

Dr. Gerri Browning, the city’s health officer, signed the termination letter, which was presented to Martin in her office by Favella and Dabertin. Though her contract provided she could only be terminated for cause after a hearing before the Health Board, Martin’s termination was effective immediately without a hearing.

Martin sued in February 2016, and the surviving claims at issue in the Monday summary judgment ruling included federal due process violations, individual capacity claims against Dabertin, Favella, Browning and Mayor Anthony Copeland, a First Amendment violation, and confinement and intimidation claims against Favella and Dabertin.

As to the due process claim, Martin argued she was entitled to a pre-termination hearing under her contract. In granting her summary judgment motion against the city on that claim, Magistrate Judge Andrew P. Rodovich rejected the defendants’ argument that the employment contract was not valid because it was not reviewed and approved during an official meeting of the Health Board before it was signed.

Additionally, Rodovich rejected the defendants’ reliance on Gilbert v. Homar, 520 U.S. 924 (1977), in which a police officer was charged with felonies, suspended without a hearing and later demoted.

“The facts in Homar simply are not comparable to this case,” Rodovich wrote. “While being a public employee, Martin’s position did not equate to that of a police officer, and further Martin had not been charged with a crime.

“Additionally, Martin was not suspended,” the magistrate continued. “If the defendants had felt that Martin’s alleged use of discriminatory language towards another employee created a need for her immediate termination, they would not have waited over a month to terminate her. Consequently, it was feasible for the defendants to hold a pre-termination hearing prior to October 13, 2015.”

The court also granted summary judgment to Martin on her individual capacity claim against Browning, finding the doctor knew of the contractual requirement for Martin to receive a pre-termination hearing, but signed the termination letter without such a hearing.

But Martin’s other summary judgment claims did not fare as well. Turning first to the personal liability claims against Dabertin and Favella, Rodovich said Martin failed to show their investigation lacked neutrality, and it was Browning’s decision, not theirs, to fire her.

As to the individual capacity claim against Mayor Copeland, the magistrate noted Martin asserted the mayor was liable for her constitutional deprivation because he failed to adhere to city guidelines regarding the allegations against her. “By asserting an argument of liability for Mayor Copeland based solely on the City’s personnel policy,” Rodovich wrote, “Martin has abandoned her argument that her due process rights were derived from the 2014 Employment Contract.”

Instead, summary judgment was entered in Copeland’s favor on the due process claim, with Rodovich writing the mayor “did not assist in the preparation of (Martin’s) termination letter nor was he present for her termination.”

The city defendants were also awarded summary judgment on Martin’s claim that her termination was political, in violation of her First Amendment rights, and her claim that Dabertin and Favella intimidated and confined her when presenting her with the termination letter.

Specifically, Rodovich said Martin waived the First Amendment argument by not responding to the defendants’ summary judgment motion, and even without a waiver, Dabertin and Favella showed that her termination was for a nonpolitical reason.

“Additionally,” Rodovich wrote, “Martin’s intimidation and confinement claims lack evidentiary support.”

Copeland was ultimately dismissed from the case, Terri G. Martin v. Anthony Copeland, et al., 2:16-cv-59.

“The question of damages and the (42 U.S.C. § 1983) individual liability claims against the defendants, Tom Dabertin and Sandra Favella, still remain,” the magistrate wrote.

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