SCHENECTADY COUNTY — Angelica Morris, who was fired as executive director of the Schenectady County Human Rights Commission in February, has filed a $1 million notice of claim against the county, alleging a conspiracy to defame her leading up to her firing.
Morris, who had an association with the commission for 15 years, was fired by letter on Feb. 18, charged with insubordination and failure to adhere to requests from commissioners, failure to abide by commission by-laws, and failure to perform her duties, among other things.
The notice of claim says the statements were false and defamatory, and “orchestrated by a group of board members of the commission with the assistance and encouragement of certain employees of county government, for and with the purpose of causing the involuntary removal of Claimant from her position as Executive Director of the Commission.”
Morris, of Rotterdam, served as executive director of the Human Rights Commission for seven years, and before that was a member of the commission for eight years. She was previously also executive assistant to former Schenectady Mayor Brian Stratton.
Prior to her firing, according to the claim, she had “worked hard and developed a reputation for competency, reliability and loyalty, particularly to the minority community in Schenectady County, and established a strong reputation for helping minorities within Schenectady County through the processes of the Commission.”
The filing of the claim gives Morris up to 12 months to file a lawsuit for financial damages against the commission and the county. A separate legal action to try to get her job back is also a possibility.
Morris is being represented by attorney Kevin Luibrand of Latham, who said her reputation and experience would be benefiting the county now, with protests across the nation — including several in Schenectady — over police brutality and deaths during arrests.
“At this time, it would be very valuable to have some of Ang Morris’ reputation with her relationships with the community in that position,” Luibrand said. “To not have someone in that position at this time is a significant void.”
County Attorney Christopher Gardner said the county expects to fully defend itself and the commission, if there is a lawsuit.
“She didn’t get along very well with the board, I guess, and the board’s job is to run the Human Rights Commission,” Gardner said. “A conspiracy, absolutely not. But there was a disagreement between her and the board over what they wanted her to do.”
Among the issues between Morris and the board were that the board wanted her to be more aggressive on issues like community-police relations, Gardner said. “When you have a board and work for that board your job is to try to implement the will of the board,” he said.
The firing was unexpected, and surprised many members of the county’s civil right community. But just five days before the termination notice was sent, Morris knew enough that Luibrand on Feb. 13 sent a letter to then-commission Chairman Curtis Eatman, objecting to a commission “no confidence” vote planned for that evening. Eatman was in the process of leaving the commission after taking a job in Connecticut.
“A claim that an employee or person receives a vote of ‘no confidence’ in their chosen business is a form of defamation, and defamation carries with it uncertain legal consequences,” that letter warned.
The claim alleges that “certain employees of Schenectady County considered the Executive Director position at plumb patronage position, rather than one intended to address the civil rights needs of the residents of Schenectady County.”
The executive director’s position paid more than $70,000 at the time of Morris’ termination. The vacancy has yet to be filled, but Gardner said restrictions during the novel coronavirus pandemic have made it difficult to conduct interviews and make hiring decisions.
The commission is independent of county government by state law, though the members of the commission are appointed by the Schenectady County Legislature, and the Legislature has control over its budget.