Indiana, PA - Indiana County

Federal lawsuit filed against Degenkolb

by on June 12, 2014 10:59 AM

A former Indiana County employee is suing her boss and the county on grounds that her firing was an act of political retaliation.

Judith A. Woods, who had served as a second deputy clerk in the prothonotary and clerk of courts office, contends in her federal lawsuit that Prothonotary and Clerk of Courts Randy Degenkolb let her go because she supported his opponent in the race that put him into office 4 1/2 years ago. Furthermore, Woods says, Degenkolb fired her for blowing the whistle, telling county commissioners that he had hired someone with a criminal record.

“Woods’ termination was not based on performance,” the lawsuit states.

Woods said Degenkolb fired her on Jan. 7, ending her nearly 27-year career with the county.

She said her firing is rooted in the 2009 special election necessitated by the death of Linda Moore Mack, who died while in office. There was much interest in Mack’s job, and the race drew two Democrats and six Republicans — Degenkolb and Woods included — into the primary.

Also in the primary were two other office employees, Republicans Helen Henry and Judy Wolfe, who continue to work for Degenkolb.

Degenkolb ultimately won the Republican nomination, and Woods, upon losing, decided to throw her support behind Degenkolb’s Democratic opponent, David Noker. Noker lost by a wide margin in the election.

Not long after the election, and before he was sworn into office, Degenkolb instructed another clerk in the office to learn Woods’ job as he intended to fire her, the lawsuit states.

And after taking office, Degenkolb indeed moved to fire Woods and replace her with his campaign manager, Donna Cupp, who is now a county auditor.

Cupp apparently had been anticipating that Degenkolb was going to give her a job — she had been a White Township auditor, but resigned soon after Degenkolb was sworn in, telling the township she was taking a daytime job.

However, the Indiana County salary board blocked the move. For one thing, Degenkolb hadn’t taken the proper steps to remove Woods from the position, the board said. Secondly, Cupp’s hiring would have violated county policy.

At the time, Cupp’s daughter, Jacqueline Cupp, worked as clerk in the office, and under the policy, while the county may employ relatives, one may not be in a position to supervise another on a regular basis.

After the salary board stopped the move, Degenkolb backed off the plan, and he and Woods appeared to have smoothed over their differences.

But then in 2012 a new issue arose, according to the lawsuit.

In October of that year, Degenkolb asked Woods to run a criminal background check on an employee whom he had hired.

Running such a check would have been against office policy as employees are prohibited from conducting them on a person unless the person requests it.

The check, according to the lawsuit, showed the employee had criminal record — an instance of welfare fraud from more than 20 years ago. The lawsuit doesn’t name the person, and it doesn’t provide any detail as to the seriousness of the offense or the outcome.

According to the lawsuit, Degenkolb asked Woods what the clerk would have to do to have her record expunged; Woods said it would take a pardon from the governor. Degenkolb then asked Woods to explain that to the clerk.

In October of the following year, according to the lawsuit, Degenkolb asked Woods whether she would continue to work in the office if she were demoted. Woods said no.

About a week after the fact, Degenkolb told Woods that her job was changing, that she was being made an administrative clerk/receptionist. Woods said the change in title was effectively a demotion because it carried much less responsibility and reduced her pay 69 cents per hour to $14.16.

“Degenkolb told Woods the removal was a result of her inability to manage people despite her ability to manage projects well, despite never having told Woods any criticism about her ability to manage people before,” the lawsuit states.

The demotion took effect Oct. 28, but about two weeks later, Degenkolb told Woods he wanted to change her job yet again, promoting her to the newly created position of administrator specialist. He also said he intended to pay her more than she had been earning as the second deputy.

“Degenkolb told Woods that he wanted to promote her because she knew how to do everyone’s job and because she could handle impromptu problems at work well,” the lawsuit states.

However, Degenkolb subsequently told Woods the commissioners were not going to give her the raise, although they would approve the promotion. So, Degenkolb told Woods that she ought to speak with them directly and try to persuade them to approve the raise.

Woods met with commissioners Patty Evanko and Rod Ruddock separately. And in the course of those conversations, she told commissioners about the clerk who had the criminal record and that she had been asked to run the background check, according to the lawsuit.

On Jan. 7, Woods was called into a meeting with Degenkolb, who asked why she had mentioned the clerk. Degenkolb told Woods she was an at-will employee and that she should clean out her desk.

She was then escorted out of the courthouse.

Woods said her firing violated not only her free speech rights but her rights to due process and equal protection under the 14th Amendment. She is seeking reinstatement with back pay and compensation for legal fees as well as for pain, suffering and humiliation.

She declined comment and referred questions to her attorney, who did not return a phone call seeking comment. Evanko said she and Ruddock could not comment on an active legal matter.

And Degenkolb, too, said he could not comment on the merits of the lawsuit, except to say that, “I adamantly disagree with her take on it, and the truth will eventually come out.”

He said that there was nothing improper about the hiring of the clerk who was subjected to the background search. He said the offense was only slightly more serious than a traffic ticket, and it hadn’t shown up on a separate state police background check, he said.

Degenkolb and the county have yet to file their response to the lawsuit.

Sam Kusic is a staff writer for The Indiana Gazette.
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