Joe Vincoli, a former state employee who lost his job after being reclassified as a political appointee, is but one man fighting the effects that a 2013 law change had on his career.
But his success or failure in court could have an impact on as many as 1,500 employees who now serve at the pleasure of the governor.
On Wednesday, attorneys for Vincoli argued in front of a three-judge state Court of Appeals panel that the law amended by the General Assembly in 2013 failed to offer reclassified workers an avenue to appeal the decisions.
In addition to more than tripling the number of state workers who could be declared political appointees, the amended law also removed the standard recourse for state employees appealing job decisions — a hearing before an administrative law judge.
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Vincoli was hired by the N.C. Department of Public Safety in 2010 in a position that classified him as a career-status employee. At the time of his hiring, he reported to a deputy commissioner of what was then the state department of correction.
After Gov. Pat McCrory’s election in 2012, that department became part of the newly formed Department of Public Safety.
In June 2012, Vincoli was rated “outstanding” on his performance evaluation, and in July 2013 he again received another “outstanding.” His supervisor wrote: “Thank you, Joe!” on his last performance review.
On Oct. 1, 2013, Vincoli was reclassified as “managerial exempt,” though he did not manage or supervise any employees, according to his complaint in state court. On Dec. 6, he was fired on the stated grounds that “a change in agency staff is appropriate at this time.”
Vincoli, who still wants to know why, contended in a 2014 lawsuit that it was because he pursued a whistleblower claim.
Vincoli, a former worker at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, identified overpayments by the state while working there and urged the hospital to adjust its charges. He was ignored there and fired from that job.
After becoming a state employee, Vincoli continued to press for a reimbursement. He persisted to report to his superiors what he believed to be misuse of state Health Plan money at Baptist Hospital.
Public safety officials repeatedly told Vincoli to stop his pursuit on state time, arguing that it had nothing to do with his department. His attorneys contend that state law requires him to report any misuse of state funds regardless of the department.
Vincoli tried to appeal his termination, but the Department of Public Safety and the Office of State Human Resources refused to process his grievance.
The state Office of Administrative Hearings dismissed his challenge, but Wake County Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens ruled last summer in favor of Vincoli. The state has appealed that.
Taking of property?
Michael Byrne, a Raleigh attorney representing Vincoli, argued on Wednesday that not offering his client an opportunity to challenge his reclassification amounted to a taking of property.
The argument was one similar to that made by North Carolina teachers who have challenged a legislative attempt in 2013 to end tenure for the state workers.
In that case, an appeals court panel ruled 2-1 that a 2013 law that would have phased out tenure for public school teachers amounted to an illegal taking contract and property rights. That ruling was appealed to the state Supreme Court, which has yet to issue a decision.
Attorneys for Vincoli argued Wednesday morning that when he was hired by the state in 2010, he essentially entered an employment contract that stated if he did his job for 24 months, he gained “certain rights with a property interest.”
Joseph Finarelli, an assistant state attorney general, disputed contentions that Vincoli’s hiring by the state was a contractual agreement. He also argued against the theory that Vincoli had been stripped of any legal recourse to the reclassification of his job.
“It’s just saying you can’t bring it in the Office of Administrative Hearings,” Finarelli said.
J. Michael McGuinness, a lawyer in Elizabethtown, filed a brief in the case on behalf of the State Employees Association of North Carolina, which has a membership of 55,000 state employees.
The 2013 law gave the governor authority to declare up to 1,500 workers “at-will” employees that he could hire and fire without recourse. That was up from about 400 at-will workers in 2010.
“If this law is allowed to stand, no statutory or contractual commitment made by the state to its workforce is safe from annulment at whim,” McGuinness stated in the court filing.
The three judges on the appeals court panel asked lots of questions about when the state enters a contract with an employee and whether the 2013 amendment essentially makes all workers “at-will” employees. It could be weeks or months before a ruling.
Vincoli said afterward that though he was pleased with the line of questions, he hopes to find answers of his own.
“I am also looking forward to finding out at whose request Secretary Frank Perry subsequently fired me two weeks before Christmas, without cause, without notice, and without a full day’s pay for my last day,” Vincoli said.