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Former Wicomico County employee sues over free speech retaliation

A former emergency management coordinator for Wicomico County claims he was fired two months ago as retaliation for creating a private Facebook account — at the suggestion of a county council member — to facilitate discussion of a controversial proposed county employee handbook.

In a lawsuit filed against the county May 26 in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, David Inkrote alleged his actions were protected under the First Amendment, since he created the account on his personal computer and used it while off-duty. The county also has no social media policy that would prohibit his conduct, according to the suit.

Attorney Robin Cockey represents (The Daily Record File)

Attorney Robin Cockey represents David Inkrote, who alleges that Wicomico County fired him in retaliation for protected speech. (The Daily Record File)

“Defendants acted willfully, maliciously, and with reckless indifference to Mr. Inkrote’s federally protected rights and deprived him of the right to freedom of speech secured by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, causing him to lose public employment, with attendant economic losses, emotional distress and harm to his character, standing and reputation in the community,” the lawsuit states.

The proposed employee handbook, presented to the Wicomico County Council and the general public at a televised session March 17, would eliminate tenure in favor of at-will employment and reduce employment benefits such as health insurance and paid time off, according to the lawsuit.

These revisions “set off a storm of public commentary” on local blogs and other websites, the suit states. Several county employees approached Inkrote with their concerns about the changes, which he passed along to Larry Dodd, a member of the county council. Dodd then suggested that Inkrote establish a Facebook account to aid discussion of the changes, according to the lawsuit.

On March 21, Inkrote established a private Facebook account using his personal computer. Participation in the online discussion was by invitation only, and Inkrote invited “a number of concerned County employees and retirees” to join the discussion. In all, 176 county employees participated, the suit states.

Inkrote was abruptly fired March 25 by county human resources director Michele Campbell Ennis, director of emergency services David Shipley and director of administration R. Wayne Strausburg, all of whom are also named defendants in the suit.

A statement that accompanied his notice of termination acknowledged a First Amendment right to use social media for personal use, but said “the County does not condone behavior that subjects County employees to anti-County government behavior,” according to the suit.

Inkrote filed an informal grievance challenging his termination on the grounds that he did not violate county policies and had only used the account while off-duty, on his personal computer. The county upheld his firing, citing prohibitions on the use of official information for personal purposes and on “making false or malicious statements, intimidating or coercing co-workers and engaging in actions that [are] discourteous, inconsiderate or unprofessional.”

Inkrote disputed these allegations in a formal grievance, stating that the changes to the handbook were public knowledge, not “official information,” and that participants in the online discussion were subject to written rules mandating civility.

“Mr. Inkrote’s Facebook discussions concerned matters of general public interest, in that they related exclusively to the relative merits and demerits of the proposed employee handbook,” the suit states. “The proposed employee handbook for Wicomico County had already engendered considerable public discussion and debate, had been televised throughout the region and was the subject of vigorous discussion on local blogs.”

The County Personnel Board, however, ruled after a hearing to uphold the termination.

Inkrote is seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages as well as a court injunction compelling the county to reinstate him and award him back pay and benefits.

Robin R. Cockey of Cockey, Brennan & Maloney P.C. in Salisbury, who is representing Inkrote, said employment cases involving social media seem to be on the rise, although this is the first such case he’s handled.

“Mr. Inkrote is a guy who devoted his whole life to public service and did a great job for the county and the taxpayers are being deprived of his services because he was simply ensuring that the public at large and fellow employees knew what was going on with their local government,” Cockey said. “That seems a sad waste of human resources and it also seems a clear violation of the First Amendment.”

Edgar A. Baker Jr., county attorney for Wicomico County, said he had not yet seen the lawsuit, but said county officials are prepared to defend against it.

The case is David E. Inkrote v. Wicomico County et al., 1:15-cv-01521-WMN.

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About Lauren Kirkwood

Lauren Kirkwood covers the business of law beat at The Daily Record.