LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – A former workers' compensation paralegal in the Kentucky Labor Cabinet filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday against Gov. Matt Bevin’s administration, claiming she was fired for “promoting the rights and general welfare of teachers and other public employees.”
Charissa “Chris” M. Cooke, a registered Republican who says she voted for Bevin, alleges that her role as a member of the pro-teacher advocacy group KY 120 United led to the firing this month.
She says Bevin, Labor Cabinet Secretary David Dickerson and Labor Cabinet official Anya Carnes violated her free speech and other constitutional rights and retaliated against her “for her advocacy on policy issues related to public education, teachers, and public employees.”
Cooke was a non-merit employee, meaning she is not protected by the merit system for state workers and can be fired without cause. But at an afternoon press conference, her attorneys said she is still protected by the First Amendment and against retaliation in the workplace.
"You can't do that as a state and fire someone because of their First Amendment-protected activity," said Theodore Walton, one of Cooke's attorneys, during a Wednesday news conference.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Frankfort, asks a judge to reinstate her and award unspecified monetary and other damages.
Bevin's office and the Labor Cabinet did not immediately respond to requests seeking comment.
Cooke was a primary contact for the grassroots KY 120 United group in Carter County, provided information about education-related bills and encouraged retirees to go to Frankfort during legislative session, court documents say.
Cooke told reporters Wednesday that she was not a leader in the group.
"I'm basically just a contact lead for my county," she said, noting she joined the group in 2018 before she started working for the Labor Cabinet.
On March 28, 2019, Cooke alleges that state police asked her whether she was a state employee and where she worked as she entered the Kentucky Capitol while wearing a red “120 Strong” t-shirt. She said she didn’t feel comfortable giving an answer. Others who declined to answer questions by state police were denied entry, the lawsuit says.
Then, on April 3, she was fired by Carnes, the Labor Cabinet official, without being given a reason, the lawsuit claims.
“While Carnes was taking a phone call, Cooke asked the other woman (in the room) if she was being fired because of her involvement with KY 120 United. The woman did not verbally answer, but made a gesture suggesting the answer was yes," the lawsuit says.
Asked about that part of the lawsuit, Cooke indicated that the woman looked to the floor and shrugged when asked whether her termination was connected with her advocacy work. She told reporters that she did not work on KY 120 United business while on state time.
"She may not have meant it that way, but that is exactly how I took it, as that it was confirmation," Cooke said.
Cooke's termination letter, included as an exhibit in the lawsuit, simply says that her services as a paralegal "are no longer needed."
The lawsuit claims that it’s “reasonable to infer” that she was fired by Dickerson with the “direct authorization and approval of Governor Bevin.”
"Cooke’s termination appears to be part of the Defendants’ efforts to punish and intimidate individuals who oppose their policy positions,” the suit alleges.
A week after she was fired, the Labor Cabinet began issuing subpoenas to various school districts that were closed during "sick outs" in this year's legislative session. Among those subpoenaed by the cabinet were Jefferson County Public Schools and Carter County Schools.
KY 120 United said in a statement that is supported Cooke's lawsuit.
"It's a shame that rank and file state employees are seemingly singled out and retaliated against for simply exercising their First Amendment right to advocate for their pensions," the group said. "Sadly, we aren't surprised."
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