La PORTE — A former Indiana State Prison correctional officer's wrongful termination lawsuit against the state will continue to move forward.
Earlier this month, La Porte County Circuit Judge Thomas Alevizos ruled against the Michigan City correctional facility and the State Employees' Appeals Commission's motion for summary judgment in its case versus South Bend's Floyd Barrow. If granted, the motion would have effectively ended Barrow's lawsuit against the agencies, which he accuses of illegally denying his appeal rights following his 2017 firing.
Instead, Barrow's case — which could have ramifications across the state — can now proceed to a future jury trial.
In his Oct. 3 ruling, Alevizos disagreed with the state counsel's assertion that the legal matter is a "straight-forward case about termination." Instead, the judge believes there are several issues on contract law, property rights and due process that a jury should have the chance to evaluate at trial.
"This court finds very clearly that any issues of material fact or inferences drawn in favor of [Barrow, the plaintiff] immediately create a scenario where questions of law and fact are far from being conclusive," Alevizos wrote in his ruling. "This court cannot grant summary judgment for the defendants when the facts presented indicate that the opposite result could easily occur."
At the core of Barrow's suit is a 2011 provision of the Indiana budget bill that reclassified many veteran state employees to at-will. The status denies employees the right to appeal their termination.
Attorneys Shaw Friedman and Nelson Pichardo, who represent Barrow, claim the law violates the Indiana and U.S. constitutions. There are clauses in both that forbid the passage of ex post facto laws that impair the obligation of contracts.
The attorneys also cite a 2017 Indiana case, Elliott v. Board of School Trustees of Madison Consolidated Schools, in their argument. In that case, a judge ruled that state lawmakers cannot pass laws that modify the terms of existing public employment contracts.
"The fact this case can proceed forward, rather than be dismissed as the state wanted, is important not only to Floyd Barrow but to hundreds of other state employees like him whose appeal rights were stripped away by language that was inserted at the last minute into the 2011 budget bill by then-Gov. Mitch Daniels," Friedman said via email.
Barrow's counsel asserts the man had an implied contract with the state of Indiana after the latter classified him as a "Permanent Status" employee in 1992.
The South Bend man's case against the state originates from his termination from ISP in 2017.
The state fired the correctional officer for improperly strip-searching an inmate, which allowed the prisoner to destroy a phone he had hidden. Authorities believe the device may have contained evidence regarding a contract killing.
Barrow – who had worked for the IDOC for 28 years before his firing – attempted to appeal his termination with several entities, including the SEAC. The commission denied Barrow a hearing contesting his firing, though, as he was an unclassified employee under the terms of the 2011 legislation.
In addition to their arguments concerning contract violations, Barrow's attorneys also claim the SEAC's denial of his appeal violates their client's 14th Amendment right to due process.
The two cite the U.S. Supreme Court case of Cleveland Board of Education v. Loudermill. The court ruled in that case that some public-sector employees have a property interest (such as tenure) in their employment, granting them due process rights.
However, the defense maintains that, despite the plaintiff counsel's assertions, Barrow did not have an employment contract with the state. As that state grants employee rights through statute, lawmakers can also revoke said rights through legislation like the 2011 civil service reform.
Alevizos wrote in his decision that the plaintiff party's evidence toward an implied employment contract with the state is "sufficient for the question of the existence of a contract and contractual protections to proceed to trial."
The judge also believes a jury could reasonably find that Barrow had a property interest in his employment.
"The possibility of the existence of a property right creates a multitude of downstream questions, not the least of which are whether the plaintiff's termination violated public policy or whether an important public purpose was served, thus overcoming a public policy violation," he wrote. "Perhaps most importantly, whether the statute itself acts as a deprivation of a property right, and if so, when was the plaintiff actually harmed by that deprivation."
Finally, Alevizos said the defendants did not adequately address the plaintiff party's claims the state violated his due process rights. With the question unresolved, a jury will have to decide the matter at trial, he wrote.
Friedman said he is pleased with the judge's ruling that his client's case was not the "open and shut" matter the defendants had characterized.
"We are very gratified by this denial of the state's attempt to dismiss this case, so that Floyd Barrow can have his day in court in front of a jury of his peers," Friedman said.
Attorneys representing the defendants did not respond to requests for comment as of press time.