La PORTE – A former Indiana State Prison correctional officer is challenging the state for what he claims was a violation of his employment rights in a case that could have ramifications statewide.
On Aug. 7, attorneys representing South Bend's Floyd Barrow clashed with counsel for ISP and the State Employees' Appeals Commission in a hearing before Judge Thomas Alevizos at the La Porte Courthouse.
Barrow is suing the prison and SEAC on the grounds that officials denied the right to appeal his termination from the Michigan City correctional facility in 2017.
Barrow is seeking damages for lost wages and benefits, as well as to have his job reinstated.
At the center of Barrow's suit is a 2011 statute the state used to justify denying an appeal to his termination. The law in question changed the status of many veteran state employees to at-will – which Barrow's attorneys argue violates both the Indiana and U.S. constitutions.
Conversely, the ISP and appeals commission are requesting a summary judgment from Alevizos in the case. Attorney Benjamin Ellis, who represented ISP, described the matter as a "straight-forward case about termination."
The case originates around the state's firing of Barrow for improperly strip-searching an inmate, according to Deputy Warden Kenneth Gann in a letter issued to the correctional officer on Aug. 4, 2017.
The incident occurred when Barrow and several other correctional officers were strip-searching an inmate at the North Gate before a trip. The prisoner reportedly had a cell phone hidden on his body that officers failed to confiscate, giving him time to destroy the device.
Authorities believe the phone may have contained significant evidence in connection to a hit, Ellis said.
Barrow – who had worked for the IDOC for 28 years before his firing – attempted to appeal his termination with several entities, including SEAC. In a Dec. 4, 2017 ruling, the commission dismissed Barrow's complaint and denied a hearing contesting his firing.
In its decision, the commission stated that unclassified employees "may be dismissed, demoted, disciplined or transferred for any reason that does not contravene public policy."
The state once considered the former correctional officer a classified employee before changes the General Assembly made to the civil service code in 2011. Per state law, classified employees are entitled to a pre-deprivation hearing to determine if they were disciplined correctly or terminated for just cause.
Attorney Shaw Friedman, representing Barrow, argued the reclassification violated clauses in the Indiana and U.S. constitutions which forbid the passage of ex post facto laws that impair the obligation of contracts.
The attorney cited a 2017 Indiana case, Elliott v. Board of School Trustees of Madison Consolidated Schools. The judge in that matter ruled the state cannot pass laws that modify the terms of existing public employment contracts.
Friedman also argued his client was entitled to due process through an executive order Gov. Mitch Daniels signed in 2005. The EO gave state employees an avenue to appeal disciplinary actions following the decertification of state employee unions.
Friedman also said SEAC's ruling violates Barrow's 14th Amendment rights, citing the U.S. Supreme Court case of Cleveland Board of Education v. Loudermill. In its decision, the court ruled that some public-sector employees have a property interest in their employment, granting them due process rights.
Ellis, in response to Friedman, argued the Elliot case does not apply to Barrow, who did not have an employment contract with the state. The state granted the rights of employees such as Barrow via statute, and therefore reserves the right to change those privileges via legislation, as was the case with the 2011 civil service reforms, Ellis said.
The attorney also argued that the 2011 legislation superseded the executive order Friedman referred to previously.
Judge Alevizos did not rule on the motion for summary judgment, saying he will decide after evaluating the case further.