State settles with doctors wrongfully fired when Dunleavy took office

JUNEAU (AP) — The state agreed to pay almost half-a-million dollars in public funds to settle with two psychiatrists who won their lawsuit against Gov. Mike Dunleavy when a federal judge ruled last fall they were wrongfully fired after “political” demands that violated their First Amendment rights.

Under the agreement, announced Feb. 2, the state agreed to pay Anthony Blanford $220,000 and John Bellville $275,000, reflecting lost wages, damages and attorneys’ fees.

The agreement says the payments are subject to legislative approval.

Both worked at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute in Anchorage and declined to submit resignation letters shortly after Dunleavy’s 2018 election. The letters were requested by the chair of his transition team and later his chief of staff, Tuckerman Babcock. Blanford and Bellville subsequently were fired.

Attorneys for the men argued in court filings that Babcock’s action in demanding resignations from a broad swath of public employees “unquestionably sought to compel speech in support of Governor-elect Dunleavy’s political agenda.” They said the request sought to elicit “a pledge of loyalty.”

In his decision last October, U.S. District Court Judge John Sedwick said the nature of the demand letter on the two doctors was “political.”

Sedwick said the defendants “were requiring an ostensible commitment of political support, or at least deference, in return for continued employment, the effect of which was to either interfere with or chill employees’ exercise of protected First Amendment rights. Those that did not want to signal such a commitment … were fired.”

The judge said Blanford and Bellville were entitled to judgment on a claim for damages against Dunleavy and Babcock in their personal capacities. The settlement, however, will be paid from state funds, not personal funds.

The settlement agreement states that it does not constitute an admission of liability and that parties including the state, Dunleavy and Babcock “expressly deny that they are liable to the plaintiffs.”

Under the settlement, the defendants agree the state “may only take an employee’s political views or affiliations into account in making any employment-related decision when the state determines through reasonable and bona fide efforts that the employee is properly categorized as a ‘policymaker’ under existing case law, or it is a position for which political views or affiliations are an appropriate requirement for the effective performance of the job, or when otherwise permitted by law.”

Stephen Koteff, legal director for the ACLU of Alaska, who represented the psychiatrists, said that provision was important.

“That is something that we believe will add a significant layer of protection for all state employees going forward,” Koteff said.

 

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