Former city employee and City of Buckhannon could face off in court in less than a year

BUCKHANNON – A former city employee and the City of Buckhannon are set to face off in a jury trial in January 2023.

Upshur County resident Laura Foulks filed a civil complaint against the city in Upshur County Circuit Court in September 2021, alleging wrongful termination and violation of her constitutional rights to free speech and due process. Foulks previously worked as a seasonal Street Department employee in the city’s horticulture program.

Her lawsuit accuses the city of retaliatory/wrongful discharge and violating her constitutional rights to free speech and due process when she was terminated after speaking at a Buckhannon City Council meeting on Sept. 2, 2021, according to documents filed in the Upshur County Circuit Clerk’s office.

Last month, Upshur County Circuit Court Judge Jacob Reger entered an order in the Circuit Clerk’s office scheduling the trial for 9 a.m. Jan. 24, 2023. As of now, a pretrial will take place Jan. 4, 2023, and jury selection is scheduled for Jan. 17, 2023.       

Foulks’s attorney, Timothy W. Gentilozzi of the Clarksburg-based firm Gentilozzi, Beck and Flanigan, is required to disclose facts and expert witnesses much sooner than that, however, with a deadline of March 4, 2022, and then the city has until April 22, 2022, to respond with its discovery, i.e., fact and expert witnesses.

There’s a chance the matter could be resolved through mediation, but an agreement must be reached by Nov. 3, 2022, according to the scheduling order. When contacted this week, both Foulks and a city representative expressed skepticism about whether the dispute could be resolved via mediation before it proceeds to trial.

The city turned the case over to its liability insurance carrier, which contracted attorneys Ashley French and Cy Hill with the Charleston, West Virginia-based firm, Cipriani & Werner, to represent the municipality in the case. City attorney Tom O’Neill, who will be facilitating communication between outside counsel and city officials, said the city wants Foulks to absolve the city of any wrongdoing.

“The city will not settle the case without an admission from Ms. Foulks that there was no wrongdoing on the city’s part, and I don’t think she’d be willing to agree to that term,” O’Neill told My Buckhannon earlier this week. “As of today, I expect that the city will have to take this to trial.”

For her part, Foulks said Thursday the case could be settled in mediation, but that doesn’t mean it will be.

“It could be settled in mediation, but I don’t know that the city is willing to do that,” she said. “They’re saying that it was just a coincidence that I got fired 16 hours after I spoke at a council meeting. My main issue is, I don’t want other people who are employed by the city to be afraid to speak up because there are going to be consequences for doing that.”

According to a previous story, the original lawsuit filed Sept. 17, 2021, alleges breach of contract, retaliatory/wrongful termination and violation of Foulks’s First and Fourteenth Amendment rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and Article III Sections 1 and 10 of the West Virginia Constitution. The complaint says those violations occurred when “[the City of Buckhannon] wrongfully discharged her from her employment after speaking at a city council meeting on September 2, 2021.”

The lawsuit says that on Sept. 2, 2021, Foulks attended a Buckhannon City Council meeting to “[voice] concerns she had with recent posts made on Facebook by a newly appointed council member” and then on Sept. 3, 2021, the next day, Foulks was informed, “she was being discharged early from her employment with the City of Buckhannon as she had been verbally promised employment into October 2021 when she took the job.”

Count 1 of the suit alleges retaliatory/wrongful discharge, saying that the termination of employment violated “the verbal employment contract offered to [Foulks]” when she initially accepted the job offer.

Count 2, which accuses the city of violating Foulks’s First Amendment right to exercise of free speech and Fourteenth Amendment right to due process, describes the municipality’s alleged actions as “wanton and blatant disregard of the rights owed to [Foulks], thereby justifying an award of punitive damages.” Foulks is seeking damages for past and future mental pain and suffering; humiliation, embarrassment, and degradation; lost wages and attorney fees awarded by the court; statutory fees if applicable and court costs; and punitive damages.

Shortly after the complaint was filed, O’Neill told media outlets the suit was “utterly without merit” and contained several untrue statements.

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