LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The Kentucky Labor Cabinet has settled for $158,200 a federal lawsuit with a former employee for who claims she was fired earlier this year for protesting at the Capitol alongside teachers and other public education advocates on the last day of this year’s session.
Theodore Walton, a Louisville-based attorney for Charissa “Chris” Cooke-Adams, confirmed Friday that the two sides had reached the cash settlement that does not restore Cooke-Adams to her former job as a workers’ compensation paralegal in the cabinet but does not prevent her from seeking employment with state government.
The cabinet denied any wrongdoing as part of the agreement, Walton said.
Michael Swansburg, the Labor Cabinet’s general counsel, did not respond to a request for comment on the settlement.
The case was dismissed Tuesday in U.S. District Court, court records show. The resolution came a week before Democratic Gov.-elect Andy Beshear takes office.
“It was a good case, and I’m glad for her that we were able to get what I think is a fair resolution,” Walton said in a phone interview with WDRB News on Friday.
“We’re hopeful that it will help to ensure that state employees aren’t targeted for their protected free speech activities that are unrelated to their employment in the future,” he added.
Cooke-Adams, a registered Republican who said she had voted for Bevin in 2015, hailed the settlement as a "huge" legal victory for state workers who exercise their First Amendment rights.
"It should not cost them their jobs to stand up to our state government," she told WDRB News.
Cooke-Adams, a Carter County resident and member of the education advocacy group KY 120 United, sued the Labor Cabinet and Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, who was ultimately dismissed as a defendant, on April 24.
She claimed she was fired days after she took compensatory time to protest in Frankfort on March 28, the final day of this year’s legislative session.
Cooke-Adams said in the lawsuit that she wore a red “120 Strong” shirt that day and was asked by a security officer whether she was a state employee, where she worked and how often she had been at the Capitol during the session. Her photo was taken for a visitor’s badge and her driver’s license was scanned into a computer system.
Others who declined to answer such questions were denied entry that day, she said.
"Anonymity was gone after that day," Cooke-Adams told WDRB News on Friday. "I knew that day that something was going to happen."
Cooke-Adams was fired without explanation less than a week later by Anya Carnes with the Labor Cabinet on April 3, a fact that Carnes did not dispute in her response to the lawsuit. Cooke-Adams had worked for the cabinet for about a year.
Swansburg, on behalf of Carnes, said in a May 22 filing that as a non-merit employee without protections offered under Kentucky’s merit system, Cooke-Adams “could be terminated, without cause, at any time during her employment.”
Both she and Labor Cabinet Secretary David Dickerson denied that Cooke-Adams was fired in retaliation for her presence at the Capitol.
“Any and all actions taken by Secretary Dickerson in both his official and individual capacities were for legitimate, lawful reasons,” Swansburg wrote on behalf of the cabinet secretary in a separate May 22 filing.
Cooke-Adams says she hopes to resume her career in state government once Beshear takes office.
While she's still a registered Republican and has no plans to change that, she said she found work with the Kentucky Democratic Party as part of its canvassing and phone-banking efforts on behalf of Beshear and other Democrats seeking statewide office this year. She said her work primarily focused on Carter and Boyd counties.
"I'm still a Republican," Cooke-Adams said. "I identify more as what I call a Bush Republican rather than a tea-partying Trump Republican."
Cooke-Adams was fired a week before the Labor Cabinet began issuing subpoenas to school districts that closed during the session because enough teachers requested sick leave to trigger their closures, including Jefferson County Public Schools and Carter County Schools, as part of an investigation into the “sick outs.”
The cabinet announced Aug. 16 that 1,074 teachers had violated a state law barring work stoppages by public employees but took no action against them. The agency, which can issue civil penalties of up to $1,000 per violation, said at the time that would not be the case in the event of future sick outs.
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