A former Perry County employee has provided adequate reason to continue part of his claim that Judge-Executive Scott Alexander improperly fired him based on politics, a federal judge has ruled.
U.S. District Judge Danny C. Reeves turned away most of Jody Jones’ arguments, dismissing the county fiscal court as a defendant and striking down several claims against Alexander.
However, Reeves said Jones had provided sufficient evidence to let a jury decide his allegation that he was fired because he worked for Alexander’s opponent — Jones’ uncle — in the May 2014 primary.
Reeves noted the evidence shows Alexander fired Jones even though he had more seniority and qualifications than another employee in the same job.
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Alexander fired Jones on his second day in office and acknowledged he did not consider factors that employers usually weigh, such as qualifications, education and experience, Reeves said.
“A reasonable jury might conclude from this evidence that Alexander had another reason for firing the nephew of his political rival so quickly after he assumed office,” Reeves wrote in the May 11 ruling.
Alexander has denied firing Jones for a political reason.
Reeves’ ruling came in a request by the fiscal court and Alexander to issue a summary judgment dismissing Jones’ lawsuit.
For the purposes of that ruling, Reeves was required to view the facts in the light most favorable to Jones and to accept his version of the facts as true.
Reeves ruled the fiscal court was immune from Jones’ claims and that Alexander was covered by immunity in some respects.
Reeves also ruled Jones had not presented adequate legal arguments or sufficient evidence to preserve several claims.
But Reeves ruled that Jones had presented circumstantial evidence that Alexander fired him based on his political affiliation with his uncle, longtime Perry County Judge-Executive Denny Ray Noble.
That was sufficient to allow a jury to consider Jones’ claim that Alexander fired him in violation of his right to free speech under the U.S. Constitution.
Alexander, a former state representative, defeated Noble in the hotly contested Democratic primary in 2014, then won the general election.
Jones is Noble’s nephew and had been hired to do maintenance work for the county in 2012.
Jones campaigned for Noble in the evenings after work during the 2014 primary. The two ran into Alexander three times while out stumping for votes, Jones said.
Alexander was sworn in Jan. 5, 2015.
At the close of business on Jan. 6, Alexander called Jones to his office and told him he was being fired.
Jones said he made a comment that Alexander was firing him because of Noble. Alexander mouthed “You’re right,” Jones said.
Alexander denied making the statement, and pointed out he did not fire other county employees who had worked for Noble.
Reeves said jurors might accept that defense, but they might also conclude Alexander fired Jones because he was more closely politically aligned with Noble than other employees.
Alexander said he did not know Jones was Noble’s nephew, and that he had to get rid of one of the county’s two maintenance employees in order to save money.
Jones — with a master electrician license, a two-year degree in industrial maintenance and a refrigerant certification — had more qualifications and experience than the other maintenance worker.
Alexander said he did not have a reason for picking Jones as the one to let go, according to court records.
Reeves said Jones has offered evidence to rebut Alexander’s contention that he terminated Jones for budget reasons.
The remaining maintenance man, Eric Harkins, testified that when Jones was fired, Alexander said he would hire someone to help him, and told Harkins to buy two sets of any tools that were needed.
“In other words, Alexander communicated that Jones would be replaced by another maintenance worker, undermining his claim that he had eliminated Jones’ position,” Reeves wrote.
In addition, the county treasurer testified Alexander never told her to remove Jones’ position from the budget, Reeves said.
Evidence shows the county needs more than one maintenance worker, Reeves said.
When Harkin got hurt, Alexander replaced him and arranged for contract labor through a company whose owner had supported Alexander in the election, according to the decision.
Jones is seeking an unspecified amount of damages.