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Judge: Princetown justified in firing court clerk

Monday, February 25, 2013
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— Princetown had a “rational basis” for removing town Justice Michelle Van Woeart from a part-time clerk’s position in her court, according to a state Supreme Court ruling handed down this month.

Justice Vincent Reilly determined Van Woeart, who retained her court clerk’s position after being appointed town justice in 1997, would be her own supervisor at the job and wouldn’t be “accountable to any higher authority.” Therefore, the town was justified in relying upon the determination of the state Attorney General’s Office, which indicated the two positions Van Woeart occupied were not compatible with each other, he stated in the four-page ruling issued Feb. 5.

“Given that the [town] had a rational basis for its determination, and in light of the fact [Van Woeart’s] position as court clerk was not based in contact but was in the nature of at-will employment, [the town’s] determination to discharge [her] from her employment as town of Princetown court clerk is confirmed and the petition is dismissed.”

Town Supervisor Mike Joyce was pleased with the ruling. He said the town was simply following what the Attorney General’s Office had laid out fairly conclusively in its opinion.

“From the get-go, it was never capricious,” he said of the October decision to remove Van Woeart from the clerk’s position. “It was never an irrational decision.”

Stephen DeNigris, the labor attorney representing Van Woeart, said he’s evaluating the decision and deciding whether to appeal. He said the decision doesn’t, however, state that town officials did what was in the best interest of Princetown.

“Indeed, removing the most knowledgeable person from a position she held since 1985 was a disservice to town residents. Indeed, the Town Board could have just as easily removed the purported incompatibility of positions by resolution,” he said. “But it chose to remove my client based solely for political reasons.”

DeNigris doesn’t expect the decision to impact Van Woeart’s unemployment claim, which was affirmed by an administrative law judge earlier this month. Joyce said the town has decided to appeal that decision.

Van Woeart filed an Article 78 proceeding in November, alleging the board abused its discretion in removing her from her clerk duties. She contended the opinion used by the town to remove her from the clerk’s job was wrongly interpreted by the town as a basis for her removal.

Van Woeart, who started working as a clerk in the court in 1985, has served both positions since she was appointed to replace retiring Justice Christopher Cernik more than 15 years ago. The Joyce administration sought clarification from the Attorney General’s Office after the Advisory Committee on Judicial Ethics concluded Van Woeart could hold both positions.

The attorney general then cited an informal 1994 opinion that concluded the clerk’s post was subordinate to the justice, “rendering the two positions incompatible.” If there are no clerks, the justice can perform clerical duties and a Town Board can abolish the clerk’s position, the opinion stated.

Van Woeart was making $19,548 per year as a justice and $26,667 as clerk. Town officials opted to stop paying her clerk’s salary as of Oct. 10.

The latest ruling does not impact her role as justice. Van Woeart, who was re-elected to her position in 2009, is expected to run for another term next fall.

Meanwhile, the town started advertising for a new court clerk this week. Joyce said the position might be filled in the future, but not immediately.

“We’re trying to backfill it,” he said. “For now we’re going to try to manage with the staff we have.”

 
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