Under the Dome

Judge: State worker’s firing unconstitutional

A Wake County Superior Court judge has ruled in favor of a fired state prison health-care employee, saying that a law the legislature passed giving the governor more control over hirings and firings was unconstitutional in this case.

Judge Donald Stephens ordered the state give Joe Vincoli of Clemmons the chance to challenge his reclassification as a manager who was exempt from State Personnel Act protections. Vincoli is entitled to a hearing in the Office of Administrative Hearings and a review of whatever decision is made there in Superior Court, the judge ruled.

The judge’s decision only applies to Vincoli, but his attorney, Michael C. Byrne of Raleigh, says if it appeals the state risks expanding that ruling to other employees who are in a similar situation.

“This should be cautionary to them that they are treading into dubious constitutional waters,” Bryne said Wednesday.

Vincoli worked for the N.C. Department of Public Safety, where he tried to get the state to investigate what he said were misuse of state funds involving a different state agency. Department officials warned him not to continue to pursue that accusation on work time.

The department eventually reclassified him as a manager who could be fired at will, and he was fired a short time later. Vincoli contends he was fired because he was a whistleblower.

Not only did the legislature in 2013 greatly expand the number of employees who can be fired at will, it also took away their right to appeal if they thought their reclassification was improper.

Stephens agreed that, in Vincoli’s case, that amounted to an unlawful taking of his property, because Vincoli had vested interests in contractual and due-process rights that began when he was hired in 2010, before the laws were changed. Those rights couldn’t be impaired and entitled him to a hearing and judicial review, the judge said.

Stephens said of the 2013 law expanding exempt employees that he governor “may now designate, for example, a custodian as ‘policy making exempt’ or an office assistant as ‘managerial exempt’ without practical regard for the definitions (in the law) … and without any opportunity for the employees affected to challenge the designation and its deprivation of his or her vested property interest.”