Lawsuit stems from three-month battle that began over relocation of a desk in courthouse

A disagreement stemming from the location of an employee's workspace has resulted in a wrongful termination suit brought against Adair County Circuit Judge Russell E. Steele by a former deputy circuit clerk.

Susan Gall, a former Adair County deputy circuit clerk whose employment was terminated by Steele effective Oct. 31, filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri Northern Division earlier this week. She seeks back pay, front pay, benefits, attorney fees and costs along with reinstatement of employment for what her attorney, Robert Herman of Schwartz, Herman and Davidson in St. Louis, calls a "violation of her rights secured by the Civil Rights Act…and by the United States Constitution, including its Fourteenth Amendment."

At the center of the suit is a question of who has "appointing authority" over deputy circuit clerks in the Circuit Clerk's Office: Steele or Circuit Clerk Linda Decker. Appointing authority refers to the head supervisor of an office of state employees, who are paid by the state of Missouri, and empowers the individual to hire and fire those employees.

That power was held until recently by the Circuit Clerk, outlined in a March 20, 2008 consolidation of clerical functions signed by Steele, Decker and Associate Circuit Court Judge Kristie Swaim. That agreement called the Circuit Clerk "the appointing authority over all deputy circuit clerks of Adair County."

The consolidation also outlined a process for which disputes between the judicial circuit's elected officials would be handled, a process which was called upon in May 2013 when "a majority of the Judges of the Court en banc" (including Adair, Knox and Lewis counties) voted to transfer appointing authority to the second circuit's Presiding Judge. The amendment made Steele the supervisor over all deputy circuit clerks and authorized Steele to appoint a "representative or designee" to act as supervisor.

That amendment was then approved unanimously by the Missouri Circuit Court Budget Committee, which administers the Circuit Court Personnel System. The Budget Committee is comprised of 13 judges, including Steele, who abstained from the vote.

According to exhibits included and cited in the lawsuit filed, Steele first wrote to Gall on Aug. 20 and informed her that effective Aug. 27 she would be dismissed from her position due to "failure or refusal to comply with a lawful order or to accept a reasonable and proper assignment from an authorized supervisor and behavior that adversely affects the court."

The letter states that on July 31, 2013, Court Services Administrator Matt Holt told Gall her work location had been reassigned, with her previous space reallocated for another employee. The letter states Gall refused and returned to her previous work space "without discussing the move with, or obtaining permission from, Mr. Holt, your authorized supervisor."

Decker told the Daily Express Gall was reassigned to a space outside the Circuit Clerk's office, to a "file supply room" on the Adair County Courthouse's ground level. Decker said the County Commission declared the space "uninhabitable" on "the day of" the ordered reassignment.

Gall was placed on paid administrative leave and asked to attend a meeting with Steele on Aug. 7. Holt rescheduled the meeting to Aug. 12 when Gall said she was not provided adequate notice.

At the Aug. 12 meeting, Steele wrote that Gall "demanded" another employee be present, which Steele declined because the other employee, later identified as Decker, "did not have any relevance to the subject of the meeting" and that Steele "did not want to disrupt the work of another employee." Steele wrote that Gall then requested to record the meeting, which Steele also declined.

Gall did not participate in the meeting, after which Steele wrote she "then approached other employees in the office and told them that Mr. Holt refused to meet with you. Not only was this false information, but it was disruptive to the work of other employees in the office."

Steele wrote in his letter that Holt informed Gall of another attempt at a meeting on Aug. 15, which Gall declined to attend without another employee present or the meeting being recorded.

The issue arose again on Aug. 20, in which Steele records that Gall requested to be represented by her "supervisor, Linda Decker."

"Further, your reference to Linda Decker as your supervisor displays a continuing lack of respect for me, as your appointing authority and ultimate supervisor, and to Mr. Holt, my designee, who, as you well know, is your immediate supervisor. Mrs. Decker has no supervisory authority," Steele wrote.

In a letter written by Gall to Decker on Aug. 26, Gall requested a pre-termination hearing, which is her right as a state court employee.

"I challenge that Judge Steele and/or his administrative designee Matt Holt have appointing authority over me. I continue to consider you, the elected Circuit Clerk who appointed me in 2010, as my appointing authority," Gall wrote to Decker.

In an email dated Sept. 4, Decker wrote to Gall, Steele, Holt and State Courts Administrator Greg Linhares that she held the hearing and determined Gall "complied with all assignments, never failed or refused to comply with a lawful order and your behavior was never in question of adversely affecting the operation of the court, or affected your ability to perform your duties."

Decker wrote she reversed the termination and ordered Gall receive back pay.

Steele wrote to Gall again the following day, stating that Decker "is not vested with the authority" to reinstate deputy circuit clerks and that Gall would not be awarded back pay or return to work. Steele cited the May 2013 amendment and wrote that by court rules the request for a pre-termination hearing needed to be directed to his office. Steele said because of Decker's involvement he would offer an extension to Sept. 12 for a hearing request.

"When Mrs. Decker led you to believe that requesting a pre-termination hearing with her was proper…she interfered with your right to due process and caused you to miss the opportunity to make a valid request for a pre-termination hearing," Steele wrote.

The final exhibit in Gall's lawsuit filing is another letter from Steele, dated Nov. 5, in which Steele indicates the pre-termination hearing had been extended again to Oct. 4 and Oct. 25.

"The time for you to request a pre-termination hearing has now expired, and no valid request has been received," Steele wrote in informing Gall her employment was terminated on Oct. 31.

In Gall's complaint, her attorney argues that the Circuit Clerk alone is the appointing authority for deputy circuit clerks and cites Missouri Revised Statutes 483.245. That statute assigns that responsibility to the Circuit Clerk, while adding that the "circuit court en banc" may remove a deputy circuit clerk from his or her position. The statute defines "circuit court en banc" as including "all circuit and associate circuit judges of the entire circuit, and determinations or orders of the circuit court en banc shall be by action of a majority of such judges in office."

Gall's complaint argues that Steele was acting "individually, and not on behalf of the Circuit Court en banc" and thus did not have authority to fire Gall, and denied her due process by not recognizing Decker's decision. The lawsuit requests front pay be considered because given the "small size" of the Adair County Circuit Court, Gall may not be able to effectively return to her position.

"This woman was relieved of her employment without proper legal procedures being exercised and she has protections under the Missouri Constitution, under the state statutes and under the federal constitution. Basically, it comes down to even judges have to comply with their obligations under the constitution," Herman told the Daily Express.

Steele referred questions to the Missouri Attorney General's Office, which said in a reply to the Daily Express, "We decline to comment on pending litigation."

The Office of State Courts Administrator did not return phone call seeking comment.