Delaware County’s former social services commissioner is preparing to bring a civil rights lawsuit against the Delaware County Board of Supervisors; its chair, Bovina Town Supervisor Tina Molé, and County Attorney Amy Merklen.
In a Jan. 23 notice of claim — a precursor to a lawsuit — former Delaware County Social Services Commissioner Dana Scuderi-Hunter “seeks to vindicate both her individual interests and the interests of the public” against the parties for their “collective violation” of her First Amendment rights.
The formal lawsuit, which is expected to be filed within the next 90 days, is based on a constitutional claim that could be brought before federal court, according to Scuderi-Hunter’s attorney, Ron Dunn.
“Dana’s tough, and she’s a very principled person,” Dunn said. “Luckily, she’s someone who is willing to push back against power.”
The notice contends that Scuderi-Hunter was discharged from her position as social services commissioner “based on her exercise of her First Amendment right of free speech, when she testified truthfully under oath at a Family Court proceeding.”
Scuderi-Hunter was criticized by Merklen in a June 11 letter for “advancing a position contrary to that of … the County” by testifying to her professional recommendations for a foster child in her custody when called to the stand by the child’s attorney, Victor Carrascoso, in a May family court proceeding.
The child, referred to as Child No. 2 throughout the nine-day disciplinary proceedings brought against then-Commissioner Scuderi-Hunter last fall, faced continued incarceration in a secure youth detention facility, as advocated for by Merklen on behalf of Delaware County Director of Probation Scott Glueckert.
The family court judge ultimately sided in favor with Scuderi-Hunter’s professional recommendation to place the youth in an inpatient drug and alcohol rehabilitation program, a recommendation supported by the Delaware County Department of Drug and Alcohol Abuse Services, according to testimony from Scuderi-Hunter’s disciplinary hearing.
“Both the United States Constitution and case law establish that testifying truthfully before any tribunal is a constitutionally protected right from retaliation,” the notice read. “This right may be exercised freely without fear of retribution at the hands of (Molé, Merklen and the board), as municipal employers.”
Scuderi-Hunter was placed on paid administrative leave by Molé on July 9, less than three weeks after her response to Merklen in a letter addressed to members of the county social services committee.
Following an investigation by County Personnel Officer Linda Pinner and Scuderi-Hunter’s predecessor, former Social Services Commissioner William Moon, the county filed formal charges against Scuderi-Hunter on Aug. 15, alleging conduct unbecoming of an employee, insubordination, misconduct, breach of the duty of loyalty and mismanagement, according to the notice.
Alfred Riccio, the Clifton Park attorney appointed by the county to preside over the disciplinary proceeding, found Scuderi-Hunter guilty of several charges and recommended her termination in a Dec. 6 statement to the board of supervisors, which voted to accept the recommendation five days later.
Dunn said the county’s handling of his client’s case “sets a terrible precedent” for other department heads, including Scuderi-Hunter’s successor, Sylvia Armano.
Referencing the October testimony of former Nassau County Social Services Commissioner John Imhof, Dunn contended that the position’s five-year term is designed to ensure “immunity from political pressure,” as outlined in New York Social Services Law.
Scuderi-Hunter is seeking compensation for lost wages and benefits, damages to her reputation, punitive damages, and attorney’s fees, costs and disbursements, according to the notice.
Dunn said he and his client will also file an appeal from the hearing officer’s findings and recommendation, challenging the decision as “inconsistent with the facts established at the hearing and the law that is applicable to various events referred to in the charges.”
“If we’re correct, the whole thing gets flipped and the county has to pay for attorney’s fees,” Dunn said. “It’s a big number and it’s growing.”
Molé did not return requests for comment.
Sarah Eames, staff writer, can be reached at email@example.com or 607-441-7213. Follow her @DS_SarahE on Twitter.