SCHENECTADY — Former Schenectady County Human Rights Commission leader Angelicia Morris is entitled to a hearing on clearing her name, but isn’t entitled to return to the job she was terminated from last February, a state Supreme Court judge has ruled.
In a Dec. 31 ruling the parties received on Thursday, Judge Michael R. Cuevas directed that the county and the Human Rights Commission conduct a formal administrative process called a “public name clearing hearing,” but that Morris cannot return to her job or receive back pay from the time she left the $69,496 position.
In a lawsuit against the county and the commission, Morris alleged wrongful termination from her position as executive director of the commission, a position she had held for seven years. The suit said publication of a letter detailing the basis for her firing in articles in the Daily Gazette and Times Union damaged her reputation.
Cuevas ordered that the county and commission hold the name-clearing hearing within 30 days, but rejected the other relief she sought.
“This Court does not find sufficient intentional conduct warranting that the voter of the Schenectady County Human Rights Commission that purported to remove Petitioner from her position as Executive Director be voided,” Cuevas wrote.
Schenectady County Attorney Christopher Gardner said the decision was primarily a win for the county.
“Essentially the county and Human Right Commission won on almost all points,” Gardner said. “There is no restoration (of her job) and no pay back, but she is entitled to a name-clearing hearing.”
Gardner said he was familiar with the legal concept of a name-clearing hearing, but the county has never had one.
Such name clearing hearings are very rare; Kevin Luibrand, the attorney representing Morris, said he hasn’t participated in one before, but having one ordered was his primary goal in initiating the lawsuit.
“We’re very happy with the direction to hold the name clearing,” Luibrand said. “They are very rare, maybe two or three in the state per year. It’s unique to government employment. Government cannot terminate somebody and then issue a statement disparaging to that person.”
Luibrand said the hearing would involve sworn testimony from witnesses before a hearing officer and introduction of dozens of documents. The court’s decision to order a hearing, he said, “substantially helps” the prospects of Morris pursuing a $1 million notice of claim for damages against the county.
Morris was fired by letter on Feb. 18. She was charged with insubordination and failure to adhere to requests from commissioners, failure to abide by commission bylaws, and failure to perform her duties. It also charged that commissioners held a “secret” meeting to discuss firing her.
The lawsuit said the statements were “false and defamatory,” they have received wide public exposure from articles about her firing that appeared in both the Daily Gazette and Times Union newspapers, and the articles remain available on the internet.
“They decided as she went out the door to ruin her future reputation, and they did it in a sneaky, dirty way,” Luibrand said.
In affidavits connected to the lawsuit, county legislative aide Jesse McGuire, who is secretary to the commission, said that Morris mishandled claims of discrimination made to the commission, and cancelled a Hispanic Heritage event “he had put a lot of work into.”
Omar McGill, acting chair of the commission, said in an affidavit that Morris was insubordinate and failed to work collaboratively with commissioners, and the commission didn’t coordinate release of his letter explaining the firing. Both the Daily Gazette and Times Union obtained the letter after filing Freedom of Information Law requests, Cuevas’ decision noted.
In her own deposition, Morris said her critics didn’t provide specifics to support the charges against her.
Cuevas found that the commission met in violation of the Open Meetings Law to discuss firing Morris, but concluded the violation wasn’t intentional, so it didn’t warrant reversing the decision made at that meeting.
The executive director position was vacant for several months, but the commission in August hired Arthur Butler as its new executive director. Butler came to the position after founding and serving as executive director of the Capital District African American Coalition on AIDS, and also working at Hunger Solutions New York.
Gardner said the commission is working well at this point. “I think everybody is very happy with the job Mr. Butler is doing,” he said.
The commission, established in 1965, operates independently from county government, though commissioners are appointed by the County Legislature and the director is paid by the county. Both the county and commission were defendants in the lawsuit, though the county mounted the legal defense, through an outside legal counsel.