The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

January 5, 2014

Judge tosses most of fired secretary’s accusations

By Joe Pinchot
Herald Staff Writer

GREENVILLE — A federal judge has dismissed all but one of the seven charges levied by the former Greenville borough secretary against the borough, eight past and present council members and the borough manager.

Nancy Little, 58, of 1 Homerun Drive, Fredonia, on Aug. 30 sued over her Sept. 12, 2012, firing. She had worked for the borough since June 2009.

The one count that remains active is a civil rights accusation that her free-speech rights were violated. She said she was not told why she was fired, only that she had committed a “breach of confidentiality.”

The defendants argued that her suit did not include what alleged protected speech acts were violated.

“(Little) cannot be faulted for failing to provide more details regarding her termination when this is the only information she was given,” said U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Robert C. Mitchell, Pittsburgh. “This minimal piece of information does suggest that her termination resulted from information she communicated, which could fall within the scope of the First Amendment.”

It’s too soon to say whether council members should be afforded immunity under state law because not enough information has been developed, he said.

Little alleged she was denied her property interest in her job under the 14th Amendment and her right under the state Local Agency Law because she was fired without a hearing or a chance to appeal.

However, Mitchell said, Little was an at-will employee. She served at the pleasure of her employer and was not entitled to continue working for the borough.

“She has not cited any explicit enabling legislation from the Pennsylvania General Assembly which would allow a borough such as Greenville to employ its workers on anything but an at-will basis,” said Mitchell, in an opinion filed Dec. 26.

Exceptions to this rule include police personnel, who are subject to a law that says they can be fired only for “just cause,” Mitchell said.

Little’s claims of breach of contract, wrongful termination and detrimental reliance failed because she “has not identified any portion of her contract that defendants breached,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell added that he does not have jurisdiction over Little’s allegation that the Ethics Act was violated when former Councilman Megan Heathcote voted to fire her and then resigned and was hired to replace her because enforcement is handled by the state Ethics Commission.

“(T)he act contains no provision for bringing a civil action in court,” Mitchell said.