Judge finds PSC chairman lacked power to fire worker

Ruling orders Md. agency to reinstate ex-employee

October 22, 2004|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

Six months after the head of the state Public Service Commission summarily fired five of the agency's professionals, a Baltimore Circuit Court judge has ruled the chairman lacked authority to fire one of the employees and ordered her reinstated.

Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan said in an oral ruling that Kenneth D. Schisler, chairman of the agency that regulates Maryland's utilities, acted improperly when he fired Chrys Wilson, the agency's former manager of external relations, then denied her appeal, without consulting the other commissioners. Kaplan ordered the PSC to reinstate Wilson to her job.

"In short, he didn't have any right to do it," Kaplan said during a hearing Wednesday on a lawsuit Wilson filed against the state, the PSC and Schisler. "He didn't have the right to terminate her, and the commission never acquiesced in the termination. There was no delegating to the chair to act alone."

Kaplan further found that Wilson should have had a right to appeal Schisler's decision to the full commission, rather than to Schisler alone.

"For the person that terminated her to give her the hearing is not an unbiased hearing," the judge said.

Schisler could not be reached for comment yesterday. Susan S. Miller, the PSC's general counsel, said she expects the full commission to meet on the ruling, possibly next week.

"They'll be looking at all the options, including an appeal and how to go forward based on the court's ruling, once we see the court's written ruling," Miller said.

Wilson's attorney, Cary Hansel, said yesterday that the ruling means Wilson is to be reinstated immediately, with back pay, though issues of her return have yet to be resolved.

"She wants her job back," Hansel said. "She wants what was wrongfully taken from her."

Wilson declined to comment.

Schisler, a Republican former state legislator who was appointed chairman of the five-member commission by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in May, refused to discuss what he called "personnel matters" with his colleagues.

At the time of the firings in April, three of the five commissioners, Harold D. Williams, J. Joseph "Max" Curran III and Gail C. McDonald, challenged his actions, saying Schisler lacked authority to terminate key technical advisers and public information officials on his own. They said they wanted to see the five reinstated. McDonald has since completed her term on the commission and has been replaced by Commissioner Allen M. Freifeld.

"I was truly excited about the outcome of this court hearing, and Judge Kaplan's ruling," Williams said yesterday. "I felt it was a situation where it should have taken the entire commission to make a ruling on these employees and not just one commissioner. I think she [Wilson] deserves all the positive things that came out of this ruling."

Williams said he would oppose an appeal.

Wilson is the first of the five fired employees to receive a legal ruling. Two of the other fired employees, Blaine L. Keener, the PSC's former chief engineer, and Randy Allen, the former chief auditor, plan to file similar lawsuits within the next 10 days, said Morton Edelstein, their attorney.

"We let Chrys Wilson blaze the trail for us, and having blazed the trail, we will be following up with similar legal action," Edelstein said.

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