New trial is ordered over firing in Beaver

Ex-commissioner's aide calls dismissal political

Saturday, November 24, 2001

By Torsten Ove, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A federal appeals court has ruled in favor of a secretary for a former Beaver County commissioner who said she was fired because she helped the wrong candidate for local district justice.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia on Wednesday reversed U.S. District Judge Donald Ziegler's decision in a 1999 civil rights suit brought by Delores Armour against Beaver County Commissioner Bea Schulte that claimed she was improperly fired because of her politics.

Ziegler had granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants, ruling the county had established that political agreement between a commissioner and a secretary was an "appropriate requirement" for the job.

The judge also said Armour didn't prove she was fired for political reasons.

But in a 2-1 decision, a panel of appellate judges said Ziegler was wrong to grant judgment and that a review by a fact-finder was needed to establish exactly what Armour's job entailed.

At issue is whether a politician's secretary is merely a clerk or rises to the level of an administrative assistant who handles confidential information and deals with constituents.

In his opinion, Ziegler noted that Armour herself described her job as that of an administrative assistant. But she and others also said in depositions that the job was clerical, not political.

"If a jury were to credit Armour's testimony ... it could find that the job duties of the commissioner's secretary were more analogous to 'the most routine clerical tasks' than to tasks involving a high level of confidentiality," wrote U.S. District Judge Louis Pollak of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, who is not an appellate judge but was sitting on the panel by designation.

"Thus, based on our review of the record, we conclude that genuine disputes regarding the nature of Armour's position remain. This conclusion is strengthened in that the 'substantial' burden of proving that political affiliation is an appropriate job requirement remains at all times on the governmental entity."

Circuit Judge Thomas Ambro agreed with Pollak, but Circuit Judge Anthony Scirica dissented.

"[Ziegler] found that an 'absence of political cohesion' between Armour and Schulte would potentially damage the commissioner's work, rendering Armour an employee subject to dismissal on political grounds," Scirica wrote. "Having reviewed the record, I would agree."

Armour and Schulte met when Armour volunteered to work on Schulte's 1995 campaign as a Democratic candidate for commissioner. After winning the election, Schulte hired Armour as her secretary.

In January 1999, Joseph Askar, a Democrat running for district justice in Center, approached her with logistical questions about running a campaign. She said she answered Askar's questions but took no other action on his behalf.

Schulte, who supported another candidate, questioned her about her involvement with Askar, Armour said, and eventually fired her after first offering her a lower-paying, part-time position at a geriatric center.

The role of secretaries as "gatekeepers" in a politician's office has made wrongful termination suits of this kind more complicated than those involving higher-level positions where political loyalty is expected, such as media spokesperson or office manager.

"The issue of secretaries has always been up in the air because of this gatekeeper function," said Armour's lawyer, Sam Cordes.

In this case, Cordes said Armour's job did not require her to be politically loyal.

"Typing is not a Democratic or Republican skill," he said.

The case has been sent back to Ziegler for trial.