Judge dismisses ex-solicitor’s whistleblower lawsuit

A federal judge has thrown out the wrongful dismissal lawsuit against the county filed by former county solicitor Michael J. Giangrieco.

Chief Middle District Judge John E. Jones III ruled last week that the two county commissioners named in the suit did not violate Giangrieco’s free speech rights in firing him from his taxpayer-funded job defending the county from lawsuits.

Jones also ruled that Giangrieco did not prove unlawful retaliation under the Pennsylvania Whistleblower Law.

Giangrieco claimed that the two commissioners, spearheaded by Chairwoman Elizabeth “Betsy” Arnold, voted to fire him after he refused to lie in responses to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in a separate but related ongoing employment discrimination lawsuit filed against the county.  Commissioner Judy Herschel, Giangrieco charged, targeted him due to his involvement in a challenge to her name appearing on the ballot for last year’s primary election.

Last week’s development in the Giangrieco case comes as parties in the employment discrimination case filed by former chief clerk and county detective Robert Stoud ready themselves for trial in federal court.

Stoud sued the county in November 2017 alleging the county subjected him to a hostile work environment for investigating and reporting an incident of sexual harassment alleged by a female subordinate against another county employee.  The parties await notice of a trial start date in that case.

The woman who reported the alleged sexual harassment incident, Maggie McNamara, formerly the county’s deputy clerk, also filed suit in federal court at the same time as Stoud, making similar hostile work environment and retaliation claims.  That case was settled earlier this year.

Susquehanna County has proven no stranger to workplace harassment lawsuits.  The Stoud and McNamara lawsuits against the county came before the precedent-changing 2018 Minarski employment law decision which stemmed from a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Sheri Minarski, a part time secretary in the county Veterans Affairs office. 

Giangrieco sued Arnold, Herschel and the county in May after they terminated him with a 2-to-1 vote at the commissioners’ reorganization meeting in January.

Giangrieco did not return a phone call or respond to an e-mail to his Public Avenue, Montrose, office seeking comment.  He did not indicate if he planned to appeal the judge’s decision.

The former county solicitor singled out Arnold as he said she retaliated against him after she became “infuriated” when he refused to change his answers to the EEOC in the Stoud lawsuit “because he would not lie to help cover up her actions.”

Actions, Giangrieco alleged in court documents, Arnold attempted to cover up included her making derogatory remarks about Stoud, increasing scrutiny of his work, and alleging that Stoud and McNamara engaged in an extramarital affair.

“I cannot speak to that as this case is still subject to appeal and as there is other litigation pending against the county, I will refer questions to our solicitor,” Arnold said last week.  “Other than that, we are pleased with the result so far,” she said.

Arnold and former commissioner MaryAnn Warren appeared as defendants in both the McNamara and Stoud lawsuits, but their names were later removed from the suit, leaving the county the sole defendant.

Giangrieco claimed in his lawsuit that Arnold and Herschel colluded to “get rid of the testosterone in the courthouse.”  He later withdrew a claim of gender discrimination.

Giangrieco also claimed Herschel targeted him as he was involved in 2019 election board hearings regarding complaints of allegedly improperly filed campaign finance statements from her and three other members of the grassroots Bootstrap Campaign.  The complaints sought to block Bootstrap Campaign members from appearing on the May 21 primary ballot last year.  The complaints became politicized because, if successful, only the names of the incumbent commissioners and another challenger would have appeared on the primary election ballot.

After a hearing in March 2019, Senior Common Pleas Judge Kenneth W. Seamans rejected the challenges and ordered the names of the Bootstrap Campaign members, including Herschel’s, to appear on the ballot. Of the four Bootstrap candidates, voters only elected Herschel.

Giangrieco, the county’s solicitor for about 10 years starting in 1996, and then again from January 2017 until his dismissal January 6, 2020, also served two four-year terms as a county commissioner, starting first taking office in January 2008.

“Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Herschel ‘took offense’ at Plaintiff’s ‘involvement,’ and that she ‘vowed to get even with him,’” Jones noted in his 25-page opinion.

Giangrieco’s violation of free speech and whistleblower arguments stemmed from claims he spoke out about the county’s attempts to stifle his complaints about what he alleged as the two commissioners’ retaliatory behavior.  Giangrieco, then the county solicitor, claimed that at the time he was not speaking as the county’s lawyer as another lawyer from the insurance company represented the county in that lawsuit.

But Jones rejected Giangrieco’s argument, which the judge wrote, “strains credibility,” in dismissing Giangrieco’s free speech claims.

“Plaintiff counseled Defendant Arnold concerning conduct that could expose the county to liability.  This is the textbook definition of legal advice, and Plaintiff’s principal job as county solicitor was to render legal advice to county commissioners such as Defendant Arnold,” Jones wrote.

Jones also refused to accept Giangrieco’s whistleblower violation argument, finding instead that he “has not established that he indeed made any ‘good faith report’ of wrongdoing.”

Jones said that Giangrieco’s allegation that he refused to lie in the EEOC complaint did not constitute his making a “good faith report.”

“Plaintiff does not allege that he made any report to Susquehanna County or an appropriate authority – he only alleges that he told the attorney hired by county’s insurance company that the documents “prepared” in response to an EEOC complaint were false and inaccurate, and that he would not change his previously-drafted statement,” Jones wrote.

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