Judge dismisses wrongful firing lawsuit filed by 5 former Arizona child welfare workers

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PHOENIX — A judge Thursday threw out a wrongful termination lawsuit filed by five former Arizona child welfare workers who were fired last year amid an agency scandal.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Robert Oberbillig dismissed the case more than a week after the five women had their first day in court, saying state law allowed their firings even if they were scapegoats for others' actions.

The ex-Child Protective Services employees argued their terminations were the result of a scheme to provide political cover to then-Gov. Jan Brewer and Clarence Carter, who headed the Department of Economic Security.

In Oberbillig's ruling, he said he took the ex-workers' allegations as true for the sake of the legal argument. Even given that, he found there was no violation of state law.

The workers' lawsuit said they were top employees chosen to help review inactive cases under a plan devised by their superiors to try to cut down on a crushing caseload for field workers. They said they were only following orders to go through thousands of cases and chose those to be investigated and those that could be closed.

The state's child welfare agency was rocked by the November 2013 discovery that thousands of hotline calls were labeled as not worthy of being investigated. The scandal led to the agency's demise and the creation of the Department of Child Safety.

The five senior CPS workers were fired in April 2014 by former DCS Director Charles Flanagan after the completion of a Department of Public Safety investigation.

Flanagan said at the time that he fired the five upper-level managers and administrators because they were responsible for creating and overseeing the case closings against policy and in violation of state laws. He said they not only knew that what they were doing was against policy but took steps to keep their actions secret.

The fired workers have defended their work, saying they followed orders to create a system that culled out low-priority cases and lowered crushing caseloads. Their lawsuit said they kept their superiors apprised of their actions at all times.

The five women — Deborah Harper, Tracey Everitt, Michelle Parker, Jana Leineweber and Janet Sabol, claim they were merely the fall-guys. They sought unspecified damages.

Terry Woods, the lawyer for the workers, said he was dismayed at the ruling and would advise his clients to appeal.

"It's pretty disappointing, but I thought certainly the judge took it seriously," Woods said.

Woods pointed to Arizona's employment laws, which limit fired workers' ability to seek help from the courts. Many state employees lost civil service protections after Gov. Jan Brewer championed an overhaul of the state merit system protections through the Legislature in 2012.

"I obviously thought that it was unfair, but I'm an advocate," Woods said of his clients' firings. "But there was a decision made three years ago to vastly reduce the number of state employees who have job protection. And that was a decision made in our legislature."

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