High Court Upholds Dismissal In Berlin, Finance Head Case

BERLIN – The Maryland Court of Special Appeals this week formally upheld the decision of the Worcester County Circuit Court to dismiss 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.

The state’s Court of Special Appeals on Wednesday issued an opinion upholding the decision of the lower court to dismiss the case, agreeing the complaint, which sought damages and relief on two fronts including a due process violation and false light defamation of character, failed to satisfy the legal standard for the allegations. In essence, the case revolved around Bireley’s contention his termination in January 2005 and the alleged public statements about the town’s finances at the same time cast him in a negative light and alluded to his fiscal malfeasance.

However, the Circuit Court ruled, and the higher court agreed, no evidence of any defamatory statements by Cardinale or any town employees coincided with the former finance director’s termination. Bireley’s attorney Robin Cockey yesterday disagreed with the high court’s opinion, citing the finance director’s termination and the way it was handled constituted a defamation of his character.

“The Court of Special Appeals affirmed the decision of the Circuit Court holding that they did not see any specific statements from former Mayor Cardinale or town officials about Mr. Bireley that cast him in a negative light,” he said. “Well, what was said and what was done were two different things. I argued the actions taken against Mr. Bireley spoke louder than any words, but they didn’t buy that argument.”

Bireley, through Cockey, first filed the suit in Worcester County Circuit Court in December 2007, 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.” Cardinale fired Bireley 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 undisclosed award of punitive damages. Cardinale died in office in May 2008 and his estate was never substituted as a party in the case.

Defense attorney Kevin Karpinski filed a motion to dismiss the case at the Circuit Court level, denying Bireley had any right to a substantive due process complaint 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 read. “Therefore, defendants did not need cause to fire the plaintiff, rather, they could terminate for no reason at all if they wished.”

In July of last year, Worcester County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Groton filed 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. 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.”

In his nine-page opinion released this week, Court of Special Appeals Judge Timothy E. Meredith upheld Groton’s earlier ruling in the case.

“In this case, Bireley pled no specific statement about him that was either false or reflected poorly on him,” the opinion reads. “Bireley did not allege in his complaint that Mayor Cardinale terminated him for fiscal misfeasance or made a statement to that effect, nor did he allege that Mayor Cardinale publicly accused him of fiscal misfeasance at any time.”

The high court’s opinion handed down this week suggests there was no nexus between Bireley’s termination and the subsequent investigation of the town’s finances.

“Mayor Cardinale’s stated desire to investigate town finances upon taking office were not misrepresentations of a past or present fact and did not mention Bireley,” Meredith’s opinion reads. “The mere fact that Mayor Cardinale’s public statements occurred close in time with Bireley’s termination is not sufficient to support Bireley’s contention that he was thereby wrongfully placed in a false light.”

The Court of Special Appeals opinion released this week does not necessarily mean the end of the line for Bireley’s action against the town, according to Cockey.

“Mr. Bireley can petition the Court of Appeals to review the opinion, but that decision is pending,” he said. “We haven’t gotten that far yet because this latest opinion is still so fresh.”