A former assistant public defender in south-central Pennsylvania has filed a federal lawsuit challenging his firing, with the plaintiff maintaining that he was forced from his position due to his age.
William Scott Sandusky, an attorney with more than three decade’s worth of experience in the legal field, filed a pro se civil action Oct. 4 at the federal courthouse in Harrisburg against Adams County, Pa. and various officials.
Sandusky, who was first hired as an assistant public defender in Adams County in late June 2011, claims that he lost his job just over six months later to a 26-year-old recent law school graduate who had interned for the Adams County Public Defender’s Office.
The plaintiff, who is 57 years old, claims that Adams County Public Defender Kristin Rice had wanted to hire the younger man, not Sandusky, as her replacement; Rice had previously served as an assistant public defender.
Sandusky and Rice had both applied for the open head public defender spot before Rice was awarded the position, the complaint notes.
The lawsuit says that Sandusky was fired from his job on Jan. 17, 2012, allegedly due to statements he made during a six-month employment evaluation that took place four days prior.
Sandusky never used profanity, didn’t make any threats, was not violent, did not display “wanton” conduct, and made no inappropriate comments, the lawsuit states.
Nevertheless, the attorney was told to pack up his things and leave, the suit claims.
The law school graduate who had interned with the office was then hired on as a full-time assistant public defender.
Sandusky claims that the reason given for his termination was a pretext to disguise what the suit calls the true nature of the firing – to have the former intern replace Sandusky as a full-time assistant public defender.
Rice’s “intentional” timing of her demand that Sandusky try the penalty phase of a capital case against a man accused of gunning down a Wildlife Conservation Officer, which she knew Sandusky couldn’t competently perform, provided Rice the “contrived rationale” to convince county officials that Rice should be granted her request for the full-time hiring of the former intern, the complaint states.
According to the complaint, at the time of Sandusky’s hiring, Rice, then also an assistant public defender, was representing the man charged with first-degree murder in the death of the wildlife officer.
While the lawsuit doesn’t mention specifics, the case to which it appears to be referring was the murder trial of Christopher Johnson, who was arrested and charged with shooting Wildlife Conservation Officer David Grove to death in 2012.
Johnson and a friend had been illegally poaching a deer when they were discovered by Grove.
Johnson, 29, vowing to never go back to prison, then initiated a shootout that left Grove dead, according to past news reports.
Grove was reported to have been the first Pennsylvania wildlife officer killed in the line of duty in close to 100 years.
Johnson was sentenced to death in October 2012.
The complaint says that Sandusky, the plaintiff, was asked to take over certain other cases alongside fellow assistant public defenders while Rice worked the capital murder case.
Sandusky, however, claims that unlike others, he was never given an assignment concerning the Johnson case.
That allegedly changed on Dec. 29, 2011, when Rice told Sandusky he would be trying the penalty phase of the murder case.
The plaintiff explained to Rice that he was “not legally competent, and not experienced at all, to try a capital case penalty phase, and could not adequately become competent within the short three month period before the trial was then scheduled to commence,” the suit states.
The complaint says that Sandusky never refused to represent the defendant in the murder case during the guilt/innocence phase of the trial, but that he had an “ethical obligation” not to try the penalty phase in accordance with the Rules of Professional Conduct.
It was not long after this that Sandusky was fired.
The suit says that Rice and the other defendants – they include the county itself along with County Commissioners Randy Phiel, Jim Martin and Marty Karsteter Qually – have intentionally or recklessly discriminated against Sandusky on the basis of his age with the “knowledge … that it was unlikely that Plaintiff could financially recover from his termination due to his age, due to the limited employment opportunities for attorneys and other job seekers since the national financial recession; and that the negative effect of his termination would prejudice his work history, would cause mental and physical distress upon Plaintiff’s well-being; and that the termination did not serve a legitimate business interest.”
The defendants are accused of violating the Age Discrimination In Employment Act and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.
Sandusky seeks lost wages and benefits, punitive damages, compensatory damages, costs of prosecution, interest, attorney’s fees and other legal relief.
The federal case number is 1:13-cv-02507-CCC-MCC.