RIPLEY - Finding that most of the allegations were based on "speculation and conjecture" a judge has dismissed a wrongful termination suit against the former Wood County prosecutor.
Following a two-hour hearing on Feb. 19, Jackson Circuit Judge Thomas C. Evans III granted a motion for summary judgment in favor of Ginny Conley in the lawsuit filed against her by Rozann Wilcox, the former juvenile justice liaison for the Wood County Prosecutor's Office. After reviewing the file, and hearing arguments made by the attorneys, Evans said Wilcox failed to make a convincing argument why her case should proceed to trial.
"There's an insufficient claim to allow a retaliatory discharge claim to go to a jury," Evans said. "The opinion of this court is that a prima facie case is not made."
Early in the hearing, Evans hinted he may rule in Conley's favor as he called Putnam Circuit Judge Ed Eagloski's ruling in October 2008 to dismiss part of the suit, but keep what was remaining as of the hearing as "puzzling." Eagloski was appointed by the state Supreme Court to hear the case when all three Wood Circuit judge recused themselves, and Evans took over when Eagloski was defeated for re-election in November 2008.
Because a prosecutor's office has to be run "immaculately," John McCuskey, Conley's attorney, said during his arguments that little room can be left for error particularly in the handling of records during an on-going investigation. Conley fired Wilcox, he said, because she violated the one cardinal rule in the office by not conferring with a supervising attorney in the office to allow an outside attorney to view a juvenile's file.
"The confidentiality of criminal records and criminal investigation is the highest and most important part of that office," McCuskey said.
The fact that Wilcox, after having worked as the juvenile justice liaison since 1995, could make such an error is something that confounded Conley, McCuskey said. When she discovered that Wilcox's error was intentional, and not accidental, McCuskey said Conley had no choice but to let Wilcox go.
"Was it a mistake? No," McCuskey said. "Was it a result of a misunderstanding? No. Was she [Wilcox] aware of the consequences of her actions? Yes."
Also, McCuskey said that Wilcox could not substantiate her other claims such as Conley making her run personal errands, and her being stigmatized by the firing.
In one of her depositions, McCuskey said Wilcox remembered Conley having her take cupcakes to her children's school once, but couldn't remember the date. Also, he said any stigma came about by her filing the lawsuit, and the resulting publicity.
During his rebuttal, Wilcox's attorney Dan Cooper did not spend as much time addressing the issues of stigmatization and lackeyism as he did on the issue of Wilcox's firing being political. Given the circumstances, he said there was enough to send it to a jury.
According to Cooper, the policy for an outside attorney to view a juvenile's file was to first check with a supervising attorney. Oftentimes if a supervising attorney was not available, as Conley wasn't on Aug. 27, 2007, the attorney would ask to speak with Wilcox.
That day, Cooper said, Jim Leach came to the office to view a
statement a juvenile client of his gave to police. After "thumbing trough" the file, and not finding the statement, Cooper said Leach left shortly thereafter.
Leach's presence in the office "set off bells and whistles" amongst those in Conley's inner circle, Cooper said. Since he was her opponent for re-election in 2000, Cooper said Conley harbored an animosity toward Leach, and also to Wilcox who supported him.
Because of that, and believing that Leach would again run against her in the 2008 election, is why Cooper said Conley fired Wilcox. Since Wilcox had an exemplary work history up to that point, Cooper said only a politically motivated firing can explain why Conley would take such an extreme measure to fire Wilcox over, at best, a small infraction.
" 'Jim Leach -- in the office -- with Rozann.' That's what got her fired," Cooper said.
After initially filing to run for a fourth term, Conley withdrew from the race on the last day of the filing period.
McCuskey countered Cooper's argument saying that, again, it was Wilcox's violation of office policy, and not Leach's presence that why "alarm bells went off." The file Wilcox gave him contained subfiles, but did not have anything in it from his client.
Also, if there was any animosity between Leach and Conley, McCuskey said it has been put aside as the two talk regularly as he is one of her son's football coaches.
In issuing his ruling, Evans noted that, due to the large body of case law, most employment discrimination cases are unsuited for summary judgment. However, since the claims Wilcox raised are rooted in speculation and conjecture, it must be given serious consideration in this case.
Along with finding no evidence to support her other claims of wrongful termination, Evans said the allegation Wilcox's firing was political was thin since it did not occur close in time to her termination. While acknowledging "that there are dynamics that go on an office," Evans said Conley waiting seven years to enact retribution on Wilcox by using Leach's viewing of the file as a pretext to fire her "flies in the face of common sense."
"If politics motivated the defendant, it would have happened before 2007," Evans said.
Wood Circuit Court case number 08-C-185