Former Luzerne County chief public defender Al Flora declined to respond to critics of his $250,000 litigation settlement, saying he does not believe it would “serve any purpose.”
He also did not want to detail how much he will end up receiving after legal expenses or weigh in on the strengths and weaknesses of the pending litigation that is being closed through the settlement.
But Flora said he does want to emphasize the suit was worthwhile because it ended up setting precedence.
His suit against the county alleged his April 2013 firing was retaliatory and abridged his First Amendment right of free speech.
Flora argued the termination stemmed from his attempts to obtain increased funding for the office’s handling of indigent defense through a separate legal action. The county and Flora disagreed on whether he was speaking as a citizen or a public defender’s office employee when he pursued the funding lawsuit, officials have said.
U.S. District Judge Malachy E. Mannion, of the Middle District of Pennsylvania in Scranton, had determined in March 2014 that Flora was acting in his official capacity as chief public defender, not as a private citizen, and his actions were not protected by the First Amendment.
However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit overturned that ruling in January 2015. The appeals court ruling said Flora provided sufficient facts to allege he spoke as a citizen and maintained the district court applied an “incorrect standard” in deciding the matter, prior published reports say.
“The Third Circuit opinion and settlement amount send a message statewide that public defenders across the state can speak out about failures within the public defender system without fear of retaliation,” Flora said Wednesday.
Attorney Mary Catherine Roper of the American Civil Liberties Union in Philadelphia, who had argued the matter for Flora, said at the time of the appellate court ruling that it showed the First Amendment “protects employees who go above and beyond their job responsibilities to blow the whistle on problems.”
Three of 11 opposed
The ruling allowed Flora’s termination suit to return to federal trial court, where both sides proceeded with discovery and eventually settlement discussions.
Three of 11 county council members rejected the settlement Tuesday. The county will pay $16,000 toward the settlement, which is the remaining balance owed on its $150,000 insurance deductible. The insurer approved the settlement and will cover $234,000.
Flora thanked county attorneys for the “professionalism” they showed while “zealously” defending the county’s position and for the work of his own legal counsel, including Borland & Borland in Wilkes-Barre.
He also credited federal Judge Thomas I. Vanaskie, who handled settlement conferences.
Vanaskie serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which is one step below the Supreme Court, and “graciously” agreed to handle the settlement conferences, according to Flora and an order signed by Mannion.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.