W.Va. court official denies claims of fired worker

Chris Dickerson Nov. 19, 2008, 3:24pm


CHARLESTON, W.Va. (Legal Newsline) -- The state court Administrator has fired back about accusations made in the press by a recently fired Supreme Court employee.

In a statement issued Wednesday, Steve Canterbury said Pancho Morris was dismissed from his position as Magistrate Counsel and Director of the Magistrate Court Division on Nov. 14. He said Morris asked to have the chance to resign, and that was granted to him.

On Nov. 16, Morris requested his resignation be rescinded and that his letter of dismissal be reinstated. On Nov. 17, Morris then delivered a letter to the Court notifying Canterbury and all Supreme Court Justices they would be sued for wrongful dismissal.

Canterbury's statement said there is no truth to Morris' claim he was dismissed because he had something to do with the release of photos showing Chief Justice Spike Maynard and Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship together on the French Riviera in 2006 when Massey had an appeal before the Court.

Canterbury "has never accused Mr. Morris of having anything to do with the release of those photos, nor has anyone else at the Supreme Court made that accusation against Mr. Morris," the statement said. "That issue was not part of Mr. Canterbury's discussion with Mr. Morris on Friday. The release of those photos has never been investigated by the Administrative Office, or any other agency.

"The only person who has ever linked Mr. Morris to those photos is Mr. Morris."

Canterbury's statement also says there is "a complete mischaracterization" in news articles about the involvement of Supreme Court justices in Morris' firing.

"They were not consulted for direction, advice, or permission regarding Mr. Morris' dismissal," the statement noted. "Indeed, it would be improper for the Administrative Director to discuss the matter with them since a challenge to his -- or any employee's -- dismissal could end up in the Court in an appeal. Thus, with any dismissal, the Administrative Director must necessarily act alone."

A recent Associated Press story said, "Canterbury also targeted Morris 'because he blew the whistle to state officials on your use of the 'N' word and other racially derogatory language in the administrative office,' his lawyer, Katherine Dooley, said in her letter to Canterbury. Morris, who is black, told The Associated Press those allegations stem partly from information he provided in a discrimination case brought by a Cabell County Circuit Court law librarian. Morris said he had also told Canterbury he believes the court discriminates against its black employees."

The statement then says Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) cases are confidential unless an individual who files a case chooses to make it public.

"Mr. Morris is not a 'whistleblower,'" Canterbury's statement continues. "During his employment, he did tell Mr. Canterbury during a discussion in Mr. Canterbury's office that he felt that the court system in general discriminates against African Americans in terms of pay. Mr. Canterbury told him that if he felt that way, Mr. Morris should file an EEO complaint. Mr. Morris did not do so."

It says the office of the Administrative Office EEO Coordinator, Deputy Director Kathleen Gross, is about 20 feet away from Morris' former office.

Canterbury also answers claims that he used a racial slur in the office.

According to the release, the letter Morris, who is black, asked to be distributed to the Justices alleges he was dismissed in part because he complained about Canterbury's "use of the N word and other racially derogatory language in the administrative office to interfere with the peace of mind and dignity of his administrative assistant, Sheila Crider, a black female."

"In fact, Mr. Morris NEVER reported any incident to EEO Coordinator Kathleen Gross or to the state EEO Office," the statement says. "He never mentioned the incidents until he was asked about them by Mrs. Gross, who had heard about them in another context which is confidential."

Canterbury's statement details two incidents in which he quoted other people's use of the word nigger, one being a discussion after the incident when radio talk show host Don Imus lost his job for racial comments. The other was when Canterbury was telling a story about why he once fired a regional jail correctional office for using the term.

Canterbury's release also includes a copy of a memo signed by Morris saying there was no need to file an EEO complaint over the matter.

(See attached memos 1, 2 and 3.)

"Mr. Morris was a will-and-pleasure employee," Canterbury's statement concludes. "Mr. Canterbury does not have to give a reason for his dismissal, and will not do so. But Mr. Canterbury also does not have to sit idly while his reputation is impugned by scurrilous, offensive lies."

In a story in Tuesday's Charleston Daily Mail, Morris said he will ask for a criminal investigation of the state Supreme Court for intimidation and retaliation against court employees. He also told the paper that he plans to sue over his firing. Morris told the Mail he was blamed by court officials for leaking the photos of Maynard and Blankenship that most say contributed heavily to Maynard's loss in this spring's primary election. Morris also said he was suspected because he is a friend of Justice Larry Starcher, who has been a critic of Maynard. Morris was a law clerk for Starcher when he was a Monongalia Circuit Judge.

On Tuesday, Canterbury told The Record that Morris' firing was a personnel matter.

"All I can say is that he was fired from his will-and-pleasure position," Canterbury said. "It's a personnel matter. As far as his accusations, I find them reprehensible. I believe my dozen or so years in state government have shown that I have a sterling record of fairness."

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