Fired worker sues Ehrlich

Robin D. Grove of Pasadena says he was a hard-working employee for the state Department of the Environment who was fired this year for no reason other than that he is registered as a Democrat.

Yesterday, Grove sued Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to get his supervisor's job back, taking legal action that seeks to alter the way political patronage is practiced in Maryland.


"Individuals fired on Inauguration Day -- and his firing was effective on Inauguration Day -- are presumed to have been fired unconstitutionally for political reasons. That's the case law," said Grove's attorney, Daniel M. Clements, who filed the case in Baltimore Circuit Court.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that all but the highest-level government employees cannot be terminated solely because of political affiliation, a constitutionally protected form of free speech. Precedents stem from cases in Illinois and New York, where the court ordered that workers fired because of administration changes be reinstated.


New governors, mayors and other chief executives are allowed to account for political affiliation in replacing high-level policy positions such as Cabinet secretaries. But, Clements said, Grove was a relatively low-level supervisor whose termination amounts to a violation of First Amendment rights.

Grove's suit underscores the novelty of Ehrlich's win in November, the first Republican elected governor in Maryland since 1966.

In an instant, the machinery of state government -- including the estimated 5,000 employees not protected by civil service and who could be fired at any time -- came under GOP control.

"It will be an interesting case to watch, given the fact that this is the first time in decades there has been a change in parties in the top levels of state government," said Darrell VanDeusen, an employment attorney with Kollman & Saucier who is not involved in the suit and teaches at University of Baltimore Law School.

In other states, employees have sued after being fired after a change in administration, creating a series of precedents that offers some protection to lower-level workers not involved in important policy decisions.

"The case may very well hinge upon the determination of how responsible a position Mr. Grove held, and whether it is considered a vital government interest," VanDeusen said.

Jervis S. Finney, legal counsel for Ehrlich, said yesterday that the administration does not comment on personnel matters. But he rejected allegations that Ehrlich wants to oust Democrats, pointing to several members of the opposing party who hold prominent positions.

"That charge is so inaccurate as to be unprofessional," Finney said. "Just look at the second floor of the State House, the Cabinet secretaries, the judicial nominating commissions and anywhere else."


Grove, a one-time employee of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President George Bush, was hired as a deputy director in the state environmental department in August 1999, under then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening. He was promoted to director of the technical and regulatory services administration in October 2001.

On Jan. 11 -- four days before Ehrlich took office -- Grove received a letter from Lawrence J. Hogan Jr., whom Ehrlich had picked to be appointments secretary, telling him he was to leave his $90,000-a-year job.

"The people of this state have voted for a change in state government," the letter said. "Our intention is to make immediate changes in the governor's cabinet and key personnel in order to begin implementing a new vision for the future of Maryland."

Grove appealed his decision to the acting secretary of the department, Kendl P. Philbrick, but was turned down in May. Grove was not available for comment yesterday.

The environmental department is one that Ehrlich has repeatedly said he wants to take in a different direction than did his predecessor.

Clements said there is only one reason why Grove could have been fired: his political affiliation.


"They didn't fire him to replace him with someone better, because there is no one better, and they have not replaced him," he said.

"The Ehrlich administration is disturbingly ignorant of the law and callously indifferent to the lives of state employees," Clements said.

Clements said Ehrlich's department heads have been boasting that they intend to bring more Republicans to state agencies.

He filed as an exhibit in the lawsuit a June story from The Sun in which state transportation Secretary Robert P. Flanagan told Republicans at a state party convention: "We have a very Republican transportation department, and it's getting more Republican every day."

The story also quoted Boyd K. Rutherford, head of the state Department of General Services, as saying: "I started moving people out and bringing good Republicans in."

State Sen. Brian E. Frosh, chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said complaints have not surfaced earlier because Democrats probably believed that Ehrlich had a right to replace whomever he wanted.


"They think they can use state service as a patronage playground, and the Supreme Court has made absolutely clear that you cannot hire and fire people based on their political affiliation," Frosh said.

"I commend them on their candor. They've been very open about what they've been doing. They are going to have their hands full with this lawsuit," he said.