Attorney makes political pink slips costly for county

A lawyer from Mt. Lebanon has filed 13 lawsuits on behalf of fired employees

Sunday, January 11, 2004 By Mike Wereschagin, Pittsburgh Tribune Review

Attorney Sam Cordes is a $1.1 million thorn in the side of Allegheny County government.

He's filed 13 wrongful termination lawsuits against the county since 1996, winning more than $700,000 for his clients. And that has resulted in at least $416,000 in fees for Cordes, 52, of Mt. Lebanon.

Cordes "wrote the book on employment discrimination in the Pittsburgh area," said Patrick Boyle, who won $180,000 in a lawsuit after he was fired in 1995 as the deputy director in the former county Department of Aviation. It was Cordes' first wrongful termination suit against the county and paved the way for the dozens that followed.

Cordes said his focus on employment law stems from his childhood in a working-class neighborhood. "Everybody on my street was in a union," he said.

He graduated magna cum laude from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law in 1988, where he served as the senior editor of the school's Journal of Law and Commerce. He won an award for the highest grade in labor law.

As for the tax dollars spend on these lawsuits, Cordes said politicians, not lawyers, are at fault.

"It's not me bringing n that amount of money," Cordes said. "It's politicians squandering that amount of money."

Maria Zulick Nucci was represented by Cordes and won a settlement in 1999 after losing her job as a contract administrator supervisor at Pittsburgh International Airport. "If you get a reputation for being good at what you do, you shouldn't be punished," she said. "He's not out concocting things. People are going to him and saying, "I got fired.""

The idealism and challenge of employment law satisfies Cordes more than the money, he said.

"It's the chance to do something for ordinary people," Cordes said.

U.S. Supreme Court decisions cause major changes in employment law almost annually, Cordes said. His wrongful termination suits against the county are based mostly on two decisions issued by the court in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They state that the First Amendment guarantees people the right to support any political candidate, so it is unconstitutional for an elected official to fire someone who didn't vote for him or her.

"That was the law, but it was being ignored," said Boyle, who called Cordes "sort of an archangel of employment rights."

"Cordes said the unwillingness of other lawyers to take on these cases made him question himself early on. "You start to ask yourself, 'Do you not know what you're talking about?'

"You just have to take something and run with it," he said. "That's what we're able to do."