Wrongful termination suit against Wood prosecutor continues

By Lawrence Smith | Dec 12, 2008

Conley PARKERSBURG – Though she will be departing office later this month, a Wood County prosecutor will still be defending herself against allegations she terminated a former employee for political reasons.

Conley

PARKERSBURG – Though she will be departing office later this month, a Wood County prosecutor will still be defending herself against allegations she terminated a former employee for political reasons.

On Oct. 8, Putnam Circuit Judge Ed Eagloski granted in part and denied in part a motion by attorneys for Ginny Conley to dismiss a wrongful termination suit filed by Rozann Wilcox.

Eagloski was appointed to the case by the state Supreme Court in March, after all three Wood circuit judges recused themselves shortly after the suit was filed Feb. 28.

According to her 10-count complaint and suit, filed with the assistance of Daniel C. Cooper, with the Cooper Law Offices in Bridgeport, Conley abruptly fired Wilcox on Aug. 28, 2007 after 12 years of service to the prosecutor's office as a legal secretary.

The stated reason for Wilcox's termination was that she "allowe[ed] a defense attorney not associated with the office of prosecuting attorney to review a case file."

However, Wilcox maintains the incident in question is a pretext. In her suit, Wilcox says that giving the file to the attorney to review was done "in accordance with the practices of the Office of Wood County Prosecuting Attorney."

Instead, Wilcox alleges that she was fired for two reasons. First, was that she "was privy to information concerning juvenile criminal proceedings. Among the information plaintiff had access to was information concerning complaints made and charges filed against members of the P[arkersburg] H[igh] S[chool] football team."

Those members included Conley's son, Nathan, and several of his teammates on the 2006-2007 Big Reds squad. Conley, Wilcox alleges, hid "information concerning their involvement in certain activities and by providing them with special treatment in criminal investigations and prosecutions that is not afforded to other criminal witnesses and/or defendants."

The second reason was tied in with the first. According to her suit, the attorney to whom Wilcox allowed to view the file was Jim Leach.

On Aug. 27, 2007 -– the day before Wilcox was fired -– Leach came to the office to meet with Conley. Leach, who at the time was representing one PHS football team player, was inquiring about an alleged statement his client made.

Since Conley was not in the office during Leach's visit, Wilcox, whose job responsibilities included that of juvenile justice liaison, handed Leach what she believed was his client's file. When he did not find the alleged statement in the file, which pertained to all the defendants and not just his client, he returned it to Wilcox and left the office.

In 2000, Leach ran unsuccessfully against Conley for prosecutor. In her suit, Wilcox alleges Conley "held a belief that Wilcox was actively supporting [her] opponent" and "retaliated against Wilcox for not assisting both during and after work hours with [her] campaign for re-election."

The retaliation, Wilcox alleges, included demands by Conley to work on personal projects for her during normal work hours, made to work overtime, but not getting paid for it and forced to get a handicapped sticker for her car when her doctor placed restrictions on her walking in June 2007.

Claims of retaliation remain

In his ruling, Eagloski agreed with Conley's attorney John McCuskey, with the Charleston law firm of Shuman, McCuskey and Slicer, that Wilcox's claims she was fired for disagreeing with how Conley handled cases against the PHS football players lacked specificity.

In addition to finding "no description of how court procedures and processes were allegedly manipulated," Eagloski also determined that Wilcox "disagree[ing] with certain alleged office policies regarding the use of court procedures and processes to obtain a desired outcome," falls under prosecutorial discretion.

Also, Eagloski dismissed Wilcox's claims for wrongful termination for handicapped status because it, too, lacked specificity and due process since she is classified as at-will employee.

However, Eagloski let stand claims Wilcox made for retaliation and not being properly compensated for overtime work she performed.

However, Eagloski stipulated that Wilcox was "to provide the factual details of her claim ... including the amount owed and date for each of the alleged unpaid services within thirty (30) days of the date on which this Order is entered."

Lastly, Eagloski denied the portion of McCuskey's motion to have the Wood County Commission, who was named as a co-defendant, dismissed. However, he ordered they "remain a party for the sole purpose of the appropriation of funds to pay damage award rendered in this case against the remaining defendant."

The end of a 12-year career

On Dec. 30, Conley, 44, will end her career as prosecutor. A Republican, she was first elected to the post in 1996 defeating her Democratic rival Michelle Rusen for re-election.

After successfully holding her seat against Leach in 2000, Conley ran unopposed in 2004.

This year's election appeared to be a rematch of 1996 until Conley unexpectedly withdrew from the race on Jan. 26, the deadline for filing for office. It is unclear if the prospect of Wilcox's suit played a role in her decision not to seek a fourth term.

Due to Conley's withdrawal, Assistant Wood County Prosecutor Jason Wharton hastily filed to run for prosecutor. A political newcomer, Wharton, 35, defeated Rusen, 51, on Nov. 4 19,045 to 16,221.
According to the Wood County Clerk's Office, the Wood County prosecutor's annual salary is $96,600.

Wood Circuit Court, Case No. 08-C-185

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