Ex-state worker drops lawsuit

New limits on free speech ends firing case, lawyer says

June 06, 2006|By LARRY CARSON | LARRY CARSON,SUN REPORTER

A U.S. Supreme Court decision restricting the free-speech rights of public employees has effectively killed a veteran Howard County official's lawsuit against the Ehrlich administration for being fired without warning two years ago.

The full implications of the court decision are still being studied, but it also could affect another widely reported case involving George Tarburton, a Maryland Transportation Authority Police officer facing dismissal after he admitted having been a source for The Sun in an article about port security last year.

The suit dropped yesterday involved Kathi H. Heslin, who claimed that her rights were violated when she was fired, allegedly for her comments to Howard County's Social Services board six weeks before her sudden dismissal June 29, 2004.

In a letter to federal District Judge Marvin J. Garbis, her attorney, Daniel M. Clements, states that "Ms. Heslin no longer has a sustainable legal position."

Clements said the 5-4 court ruling that public employees do not have full free-speech rights when speaking within their official duties effectively kills Heslin's claim that her rights were violated when she was fired.

"This is, unfortunately, the first of many Supreme Court rulings which will eviscerate the rights of common citizens" under Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and the court's other new justice, Samuel A. Alito Jr., he said.

In his May 30 opinion in a case involving a California prosecutor, Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote, "when a citizen enters government service, the citizen by necessity must accept certain limitations on his or her freedom."

Government employees have freedom of speech as private citizens, however, which led dissenting Justice John Paul Stevens to say that "it seems perverse" to protect employees who publicly reveal perceived wrongdoing, while punishing employees who report problems to their superiors.

Some legal scholars have said the court's ruling - which could have widespread implications for government workers at all levels nationwide - may offer some protection for whistleblowers who give information to the news media as private citizens, instead to their superiors at work.

But Tarburton said attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union in Maryland have told him the decision could affect the chances of any appeal he might undertake after a lawsuit he brought against the department was dismissed last month.

"They said it makes it very hard on officers like myself," said Tarburton, who said he was turned in by a security guard. He predicted the ruling would have a chilling effect on "honest cops. ... Cover-ups are going to be more prevalent."

Tarburton, who told a reporter about a long list of security gaps at the port, faces an unscheduled trial board after Baltimore Circuit Judge Stuart R. Berger refused May 25 to throw out the most serious charges against the officer.

Heslin's case parallels the situation that led to the Supreme Court decision, her lawyer said. That case involved a Los Angeles County prosecutor disciplined for allegations made in internal memos.

Heslin, the former assistant director for family investment for Howard County's Social Services Board, was 18 months shy of her 30-year state pension when she was fired. She was unable to find another job in her field locally, and later moved to North Carolina to take a job for $25,000 a year less pay.

She sued Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and state Human Resources Secretary Christopher J. McCabe, contending that her freedom of speech was violated because "she lost her job solely in retaliation for comments she made to the Social Services Board of Howard County regarding problems she perceived."

Clements has represented several state workers who claimed they were fired for political or unjustified reasons, including Baltimore County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, who won a $100,000 settlement after claiming he was fired for being a Democrat.

Democrats have charged that Ehrlich appointees like Joseph F. Steffen Jr., was called "the Prince of Darkness," worked to purge state government of people seen as politically disloyal. Steffen was forced to resign for spreading Internet rumors about Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's family.

Clements said Heslin's firing cost her $250,000 in lost pension benefits because she could not receive a full Maryland pension until age 62, instead of at age 55. She was 52 at the time.

But Richard Heslin, her husband, a retired 34-year state employee, said yesterday she brought the suit primarily to clear her name.

"She really hasn't had the opportunity to present her side - that has upset her more than anything else. After spending nearly 30 years of working for the people of Maryland, she's dedicated her whole adult life to helping people," he said, speaking for his wife.

Elyn Jones, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Resources, had no comment yesterday except to say that "we wish Ms. Heslin well."

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