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County risk managers win reversal of attorney lawsuit


A federal appeals court has vacated a jury’s $638,000 award against two county risk managers in Arizona for acting against a county attorney who had spoken to the press and was later terminated, stating they had acted appropriately.

Maria Brandon had worked for many years as a civil litigation attorney for the Maricopa County attorney’s office in Phoenix defending the county in civil lawsuits, before working briefly as a direct county employee and then returning to the county attorney’s office, according to Thursday’s ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco in Maria Brandon v. Maricopa County; Sandra Wilson; Rocky Armfield, Paul Wilson; Chris Armfield.

While still representing the county as an attorney she told a reporter for the Arizona Republic newspaper, in connection with settlement of lawsuit that claimed sheriff department brutality towards protesters, that the county had made an overly generous settlement offer to prevent embarrassing certain county officials who might have been required to answer questions in depositions.

After she returned to the county attorney’s office, county officials responsible for overseeing risk management and civil lawsuits against the county considered her conduct unprofessional and asked that she not be assigned further cases in which the county was party and which involved risk management.  She was later terminated from her job with the county attorney’s office, according to the ruling.

She then filed suit in U.S. District Court in San Francisco on charges including that risk management officials Sandra Wilson and Rocky Armfield had “tortuously interfered” with her employment contract by asking the county attorney’s office to reassign her cases to another lawyer.  She also charged that the county and her supervisor had retaliated against her for exercising her First Amendment rights.

After a seven-day trial, a jury returned a $638,000 verdict against Ms. Wilson and Mr. Armfield, ruling they had interfered with her employment contract, and also awarded Ms. Brandon $1 on her First Amendment claim.  The District Court subsequently also awarded Ms. Brandon $302,000 in attorney fees.

A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit unanimously reversed both rulings.  As risk management officials, Ms. Wilson and Mr. Armfield “had a legally protected interest in ensuring the (county attorney’s office) provided quality legal services to the county,” said the ruling.

“Wilson and Armfield requested reassignment of risk management cases because Brandon publicly commented on a sensitive and ongoing county legal matter in a manner they reasonably perceived as unprofessional and betraying her duty of loyalty,” said the ruling.

“On this record, requesting that (county attorney office) supervisors remove from certain cases one of their lawyers reasonably perceived as a liability to the county certainly cannot be considered an improper means for protecting the county’s legitimate legal interests, even if Wilson and Armfield did not have statutory authority to fire Brandon,” said the ruling, in concluding their conduct as “not improper.”

The panel also reversed the First Amendment ruling, vacated the attorney’s fee award and remanded the case.