JOHNSTOWN - A federal district judge has refused to dismiss a civil lawsuit against Bedford County and its sheriff, Charwin Reichelderfer, who allegedly fired two longtime deputies for opposing his re-election two years ago.
Reichelderfer, a Republican running for a second term in office in 2011, was opposed on the Democratic ticket by Deputy Charles E. Stuby. Deputy Lukas J. Berkey supported Stuby's bid for office by placing a sign on his lawn.
Two days after Reichelderfer was re-elected, he dismissed the Democrats from their jobs.
Stuby was a deputy from 2000-11, and Berkey was a deputy from 2003-11.
Through Pittsburgh attorney Samuel J. Cordes, who represents many defendants in employment discrimination cases, the deputies have asked U.S. District Judge Kim Gibson to reinstate them to their positions; issue a court order barring further discrimination based on political affiliation; order money damages for emotional distress, humiliation and loss of reputation; and to order money damages as punishment for the alleged illegal firings.
The deputies sued both Reichelderfer and Bedford County because, they said, Reichelderfer as sheriff helps to establish policy for the county.
Gibson received a request from attorney Mary Lou Maierhofer, representing the sheriff and the county, to dismiss the civil rights charges, contending that the two deputies were not let go because of their politics or the exercise of their free speech rights but because they violated the overriding policies of the Sheriff's Department.
Maierhofer said Thursday that the two employees were "campaigning on county time when they should have been working."
Gibson's opinion noted there were other allegations against the deputies, including Stuby wearing his uniform at an off-duty public event, giving legal advice to a prisoner, threatening to shoot another deputy, smoking with prisoners and other incidents.
Berkey, it is charged, took a photo of Stuby rescuing a dog and sent it to the newspaper.
The pair allowed prisoners to talk to family members while in custody, and they went to a car dealership to test drive a vehicle while dressed in uniform, it is charged.
Stuby and Berkey deny these allegations or claim they were not a violation of departmental rules, according to Gibson in his 23-page opinion issued Tuesday.
The former deputies claim they have a First Amendment right to to speak out on "matters of public concern."
According to Gibson, to win their case against the sheriff, they must show that their political affiliation was "a substantial motivating factor" in their dismissals.
Gibson concluded that at this point in the lawsuit, he could not rule out their allegations.
The deputies, he said, "have provided sufficient evidence from which a reasonable jury could return a verdict in their favor."
The fired deputies claim that months passed between the incidents Reichelderfer referred to when he listed reasons why they were being dismissed, and they claim the sheriff made contradictory statements about why he dismissed them.
So far, Gibson said, the defense has failed to show how Stuby's candidacy and Berkey's support of Stuby disrupted the activities of the Sheriff's Department.
Cordes said Thursday the judge "clearly rejected" the defense arguments asking dismissal of civil charges.
He claimed the judge's decision not to dismiss the deputies contentions was an important step toward taking the charges before a jury.
What happens next will will be the focus of a pretrial status conference scheduled for Dec. 10, according to the federal court docket.
Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.