Magistrates, judge dropped from lawsuit
Published 9:46 am Friday, November 2, 2018
The county judge-executive and four county magistrates were all dismissed as defendants in a whistleblower lawsuit Thursday, though the case will continue against the Clark County Fiscal Court.
The suit was filed in September by Nichole Lainhart, a former courthouse custodian who was fired by the fiscal court in July. Lainhart claims she was fired because she spoke publicly about a confrontation she witnessed between another county employee and Clark County Attorney Brian Thomas.
Thursday in Clark Circuit Court, attorneys for Lainhart and the county agreed the state’s whistleblower statute does not allow individuals to be held liable. Clark Circuit Judge Jean Chenault Logue then dismissed any claims against Clark County Judge-Executive Henry Branham and magistrates Pam Blackburn, Joe Graham, Sheila McCord and Robert Blanton. The suit will continue against the Clark County Fiscal Court as an employer.
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Logue gave both sides 14 days to file additional documents and proposed orders.
At the time, Branham said Lainhart’s employment was terminated for job-related issues, including the county’s social media policy by posting to Facebook while she was working. In the post, Lainhart said she expected to be fired and said she would speak before the fiscal court the following day.
During that same meeting, the court voted 5-2 to end her employment. The two magistrates who voted no, Daniel Konstantopoulos and Greg Elkins, were not named as defendants in the suit.
Within the last week, the county filed its response to the suit and a motion to dismiss the case, saying Lainhart’s claims are not covered by the whistleblower statute.
“This case does not fit a whistleblower type of case,” Barry Stilz, an attorney representing the county, said Thursday morning before Logue in Clark Circuit Court. “Ms. Lainhart had witnessed an incident between the county attorney and another fiscal court employee in which the county attorney talked down to the fiscal court employee.”
The fiscal court employee was not identified in the suit and Thomas was not named as a defendant. The employee worked in another county office, was not supervised by Thomas and later resigned. The resignation letter did not reference the incident with Thomas.
The whistleblower statute, Stilz said, applies to someone who exposes criminal wrongdoing or malfeasance, not office disagreements.
Lainhart’s attorney Matt Ellison said Thomas was trying to use his authority and elected position to steer someone else’s job performance.
“It’s the perfect example of what could be considered an abuse of authority,” Ellison said.
Stilz said there was a “litany of case law” showing that poor behavior by a supervisor is not covered under the whistleblower statute. He also said the incident Lainhart reported was already known by others in county government.
“How do you have abuse of authority when he has no authority?” Stilz asked.
“That’s an interesting question,” Logue said.