Fired ALJs Can Keep their Jobs, Cole County Judge Says

Missouri Lawyers Weekly – Copyright 2009 Dolan Media Newswires
By Jason Rosenbaum

A Cole County judge said three administrative law judges can’t be terminated from their positions for budgetary reasons.

Earlier this year, five administrative law judge positions were dismissed from their posts. Four of the judges were let go, and a retiring judge was not replaced. Gov. Jay Nixon said the move was meant as a cost-cutting measure in the midst of a tough budgetary situation.

But three of the judges – Henry Herschel, John A. Tackes and Matthew Murphy – sued to keep their positions. They argued that they could only be dismissed under a specific system set up in the state’s statutes.

In a decision released Wednesday, Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem issued a permanent injunction that keeps the three men in their positions as administrative law judges. The ruling also forces the state to provide them with roughly $39,514 in legal fees.

“Once appointed and assuming they remain otherwise qualified to serve, an administrative law judge appointed pursuant to [state statutes] may be removed only by the Governor after two or more votes of no confidence by the Committee or by a vote of non-retention taken at the end of their term,” Beetem wrote in a 10-page decision.

Beetem went on to say that the “public interest favors adjudication of worker’s compensation claims by an independent administrative judiciary.”

“The termination of one’s appointment as an administrative law judge, prior to the expiration of his term and without reliance upon the statutory process violates one’s right to procedural due process arising under the U.S. Constitution,” Beetem wrote.

John Comerford, a St. Louis attorney who handled the case for the three attorneys, said Wednesday afternoon that he was pleased with the decision.

“We think it’s a very fair result,” Comerford said. “We think that the statute is clear and the Legislature’s intent that you can read in this statute is clear … They didn’t want administrative law judges to be removed in the budget process. And the judge agreed with us, and we’re very happy with the result.”

A spokeswoman for Attorney General Chris Koster was not available as of press time. And a spokesman for Nixon referred questions to the Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. Spokes-woman Amy Susan said the department is reviewing the decision.

Comerford said he didn’t know whether there would be an appeal of the permanent injunction. He said he hasn’t had any conversation with Ron Holliger, a former Missouri Court of Appeals Western District judge who now works for Koster. Holliger served as the attorney defending the state in this case.

“I don’t know honestly what their intentions are,” Comerford said.

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