Kentucky teachers call out sick, protest at capitol
A former employee in the Kentucky Labor Cabinet filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday against Gov. Matt Bevin and Labor Secretary David Dickerson, claiming she was fired because she was active in the educators group Kentucky 120 United.
Charissa “Chris” Cooke of Grayson in Carter County, said in a 14-page lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Frankfort that she lost her job April 3 as a paralegal to an administrative law judge in Ashland as retaliation “for voicing opinions and joining with others to support the public education system and pension funding for teachers and other state employees.”
Bevin, Dickerson and Anya Carnes, an assistant to Dickerson who also is named as a defendant, did not immediately respond to questions about the lawsuit.
In the suit, Cooke said she is a registered Republican who voted for Bevin in 2015 and her mother is a retired teacher who worked for 22 years as a high school English teacher for Carter County Schools.
She said she was “an outspoken critic” of controversial 2018 legislation approved by the Republican-led legislature and the GOP governor that made changes in the state’s public pension programs. Schools in 25 Kentucky counties closed March 30, 2018, as teachers called in sick to rally against the bill at the Capitol in Frankfort.
The legislation was struck down last December by the Kentucky Supreme Court.
Cooke said she joined KY 120 United in March 2018. The statewide grassroots organization supports and advocates for preserving and funding public pensions and public education.
She said she quickly became one of the primary contacts of the group in Carter County, disseminating information about pending legislation affecting teachers and public employees. She also encouraged retirees to go to Frankfort when legislation affecting public education, teachers and public employees was being considered.
As a private citizen, Cooke said she continued to speak out on legislation during this year’s legislative session.
Cooke said she used her compensatory time on March 28, the last of the 2018 legislative session, to take the day off. She said she put on a red 120-Strong t-shirt and joined advocates at the Capitol.
On that day, she said, Capitol security scanned her driver’s license into a computer system and directed her to a station at which visitors’ phones were being taken.
While being photographed, Cooke said, an officer asked her if this was her first time in the Capitol. She said no and then the officer asked her if this was her second time in the Capitol. She again replied no and then the officer asked if she was a teacher.
She said no and was then asked if she were a state employee, according to the lawsuit.
Cooke responded “yes” and the officer asked where she worked in state government. She did not answer and was asked how many times she had been to the Capitol. She said she did not recall, received a badge with her photograph and a bar code and was let in, according to the lawsuit.
On April 3, 2019, Cooke said, she was working alone in the Ashland office of an administrative law judge when two unfamiliar women unlocked the door and entered the office suite. Cooke later learned that Carnes was one of the women.
Carnes told Cooke her “services were no longer needed.” Cooke said she was shocked and asked why she was being fired.
“Each time, the response was the same, ‘your services are no longer needed’ and ‘you are non-merit; we can fire you without cause,” she stated in the lawsuit.
In the suit, Cooke said it is reasonable to infer that she was fired as a result of exercising her constitutional right to freedom of speech, peaceable assembly and petitioning the government on issues related to public education, teachers and public employees.
She also said it is reasonable to infer that Dickerson authorized her firing and that Bevin approved it.
Cooke is seeking reinstatement and unspecified punitive and compensatory damages. She is being represented by attorney Theodore W. Walton of Louisville.