Judge Throws Out Lawsuit Against Berlin

SNOW HILL – A Worcester County Circuit Court judge on Wednesday formally dismissed the civil suit filed against the town of Berlin and the late Mayor Tom Cardinale by former Finance Director Ron Bireley, who was abruptly fired in January 2005 amid controversy and veiled hints of missing funds.

On May 30, Worcester County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Groton entertained a motion to dismiss the suit filed by the defendants in the case, the town of Berlin and Cardinale, but withheld his judgment at the time. This week, Groton filed a 12-page formal opinion dismissing the case, citing the plaintiff’s inability to satisfy the most basic requirements of the due process and false light invasion of privacy violations to which he claimed he was subjected.

“Bireley has failed to satisfy the threshold requirement of a published false statement about him,” the opinion reads. “Even after discovery, without such a statement in the pleadings, it would be impossible to determine whether the remarks were true, highly offensive to a reasonable person, or made with reckless disregard of their falsity. Therefore, the complaint must be dismissed.”

Bireley, through his attorney, filed the suit in Circuit Court last Dec. 26, contending “he was subjected to a frivolous, unmerited but widely publicized investigation for misconduct and then fired, depriving him of his rights to substantive and procedural due process.” Bireley was fired by Cardinale on Jan. 7, 2005 and the termination was confirmed with a majority vote of the town council three days later.

Bireley was seeking declaratory and injunctive relief and an award of compensatory damages from the defendants. As to Cardinale, the only individual named in the suit, Bireley was also seeking an award of punitive damages. Cardinale died in office in May and his estate was never substituted as a party in the case.

In the motion to dismiss, the defendant denied Bireley had a right to any substantive due process claim because he was an “at-will” employee at the time of his termination.

“As an at-will employee, the plaintiff could be fired for almost any reason, or for no reason at all,” the motion to dismiss reads. “Therefore, defendants did not need cause to fire the plaintiff, rather, they could terminate for no reason at all if they wished.”

However, Bireley contended his firing, and the way it was handled, amounted to defamation of his character and integrity and has prevented him from securing similar employment. In his opinion filed this week, Groton said Bireley and his attorney failed to present specific evidence warranting a due process violation.

“Bireley has not alleged any conduct on the part of the defendants so egregious as to warrant a due process violation,” the opinion reads. “He has failed to plead any facts that show the town’s actions so seriously damaged his reputation and standing in the community that it has effectively foreclosed his freedom to take advantage of other employment opportunities.”

With the due process component of the case dispensed with, Groton wrote at length about the false light defamation component. Although no public statements were ever made about missing funds or any other improprieties, Bireley contended in the suit his termination followed by the state police seizing his computer and town financial documents implied he had done something improper.

From the beginning, Cardinale contended Bireley’s dismissal was the result of differences in philosophy and conflicting comfort levels with the amount of debt the town was carrying at the time. However, the suit alleges “Mayor Cardinale engineered Mr. Bireley’s humiliation during an ostentatious but utterly groundless investigation of fiscal wrong-doing.”

According to the statement of facts in the suit, Bireley arrived at town hall around 6:15 a.m. with his 10-year-old grandson and shortly after they arrived, Cardinale and two unidentified men entered the office at which time the mayor pointed to Bireley and walked out of the office, according to court documents.

The two men identified themselves as Maryland State Police officers and took Bireley to another officer for questioning, leaving his grandson waiting in the hallway. The state police told Bireley they were there to investigate “missing funds,” despite Bireley telling them an audit of the town’s finances had just been concluded verifying all town funds were properly accounted for.

Bireley told the officers he had to take his grandson, who was still waiting in the hallway, to school and that he would return to speak with the officers. However, the officers refused to allow Bireley to leave, instead escorting Bireley and the child to his school, which only added to the humiliation, according to the suit.

A second major component of the lawsuit filed by Bireley against the town and Cardinale deals with alleged defamation of character issues, but the motion for dismissal attempts to invalidate those claims as well because there is no mention of a specific examples anywhere in the complaint.

“The complaint is completely devoid of any allegations of any illegal defamatory statement made about the plaintiff by any defendant,” the motion reads. “Rather, all it alleges is that the plaintiff was fired and that there was publicity regarding his termination.”

In his opinion filed this week, Groton agreed with the premise in the motion to dismiss.

“Bireley alleged Mayor Cardinale committed false light invasion of privacy when Cardinale provided no reason for his desire to have the State Police investigate the town’s finances,” the opinion reads. “Bireley further alleges that such an investigation implicitly discredited his good name and reputation, but a more tenuous link between the statements and their potential effect on the listener is needed for the tort of false light invasion of privacy.”