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Fired Council Liaison Could Sue, Lawyer Says

Fired City Council employee Ellen Bowyer may have a variety of employment and legal options after a judge's opinion last week declared her dismissal illegal.

Now working in the Petersburg city attorney's office, Bowyer was fired by Acting Chief Administrative Officer Harry Black April 30 because she refused to reapply for her job. She was the only one of 54 City Council employees let go in the wake of an April 23 notice from Mayor L. Douglas Wilder that he'd deemed their employment invalid.

Bowyer, who served as the council's legislative liaison, did not return calls for comment.

"The judge's opinion says that she was illegally fired," City Council President Bill Pantele says, "which means once again the administration's behavior has put the city's taxpayers at risk -- potentially for a large amount of damages."

Pantele says he'd like to talk to Bowyer about rehiring her: "She's very smart and as hard a worker as anyone I've been around — and it seems to me that that's the kind of talent that the city ought to be looking to retain and not treat so shabbily and terminate."

Bowyer also may have grounds to sue the city for canning her in the first place.

"It's a very unusual situation," says Ann C. Hodges, a law professor at the University of Richmond and an expert in labor and employment law. "To say the person to fire the individual didn't have the authority to do so … [Bowyer] ought to have some sort of claim."

"I would say they really weren't fired," Hodges says. "My speculation is that if they want the job back, they could talk to a lawyer."

Confirming Pantele's concern that city taxpayers may ultimately pay for Black's dismissal of Bowyer, Hodges says suing for back pay may also be a remedy. And more monetary damages may not be out of the question.

"Just because a person was terminated — even unlawfully terminated — does not necessarily justify a claim of distress," Hodges says. "Because we're in an unusual type of a situation, certain statutes do make provisions for those sorts of damages. Some of the discrimination statutes do make distinctions for [compensatory and punitive damages]."

As a lawyer, Hodges gives this advice to the city: "It probably, I would think, cries out for a settlement — as opposed to litigation." S

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