A Baltimore judge has dismissed former State Public Defender Nancy S. Forster’s $1 million wrongful termination lawsuit.
Judge Pamela J. White said Forster’s lawsuit reflects “deep disagreement” between Forster and the three-member board of trustees as to how best perform the agency’s work, a dispute that ultimately led to Forster’s controversial removal in August 2009. But that did not amount to a violation of a “clear mandate of public policy,” the standard for a wrongful termination cause of action, White ruled Thursday.
“The parties may debate the interpretation and extent of the Board’s statutory responsibilities, and Plaintiff may reasonably complain that the Board’s advice and instructions would interfere with her performance of statutory duties; however, there is nothing specified in the Complaint that reflects unlawful or particularly reprehensible conduct of the Board,” White wrote.
Kathleen Wherthey, the assistant attorney general who handled the case, was pleased with the judge’s ruling.
“We think the opinion speaks for itself,” she said.
Forster, who now does appellate work, referred questions to her lawyer, Andrew M. Dansicker, who said an appeal will likely be filed in the next two weeks. White ruled without a hearing six months after the lawsuit was filed in Baltimore City Circuit Court.
“I don’t think the decision addressed the key legal issue in the case,” said Dansicker — that is, whether the board had the authority to dictate operational changes to Forster.
Forster argued in her lawsuit that state law makes the public defender responsible for “operating, administering and conducting” the office.
“I can’t imagine a more clear public policy than that,” said Dansicker, a Hunt Valley solo practitioner.
But White ruled state law is a “starting point” for the debate between the parties and Forster did not raise any violations of the law.
“Such differences of opinion…without allegations of actual statutory breaches, are too general, too vague, too conclusory as to constitute a prima facie claim of wrongful discharge,” White wrote, adding the public defender serves at the “pleasure of the board.”
Forster alleged in her lawsuit that board chairman T. Wray McCurdy and member Margaret A. Mead “overstepped their authority” with “not negotiable” demands for structural and personnel changes in the 900-person agency. The board members wrote Forster a July 2009 letter requesting she disband certain units, such as the Juvenile Defender Division and Northwest Community Defenders, and make other cost-cutting changes.
When Forster refused, McCurdy and Mead voted to remove her, with the third board member, Theresa L. Moore, dissenting.
“I feel we were vindicated,” McCurdy said Friday afternoon.
Mead referred questions to the attorney general’s office.
Forster’s firing prompted the General Assembly to revamp the board as of June, expanding the board to 13 members — 11 of whom have been appointed, including McCurdy and Mead — and allowing for the public defender only to be removed for cause. The board’s next meeting is March 4.
Paul B. DeWolfe Jr., who succeeded Forster, had no comment Friday afternoon on the lawsuit’s dismissal, saying White’s opinion spoke for itself.