State settles with former doctors unconstitutionally fired over Dunleavy ‘loyalty pledge’

Two former state psychiatrists have reached a settlement with the state of Alaska after a federal judge found their firings unconstitutional.
Published: Feb. 2, 2022 at 2:25 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Two former state psychiatrists have reached a settlement with the state of Alaska after a federal judge found that their firings by Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration were “clearly unconstitutional” and violated their First Amendment rights.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska announced on Wednesday that Dr. John Bellville will receive $275,000 for damages, lost wages, and attorney’s fees, and that Dr. Anthony Blanford will receive a lump sum of $220,000.

Dunleavy’s administration had sought the resignation of about 800 at-will employees at the start of his term as governor in 2018. Bellville and Blanford, who were employed at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute, had refused to submit their resignations and re-apply for their jobs in what was seen as a request for loyalty by the incoming governor.

U.S. District Judge John Sedwick sided with the two psychiatrists in October, saying in his order that the move violated both the Alaska and U.S. Constitutions. His order stated that both Dunleavy and Tuckerman Babcock, who was head of the governor’s transition team at the time, faced being held personally financially liable for the resignation requests.

The governor and Babcock appealed to the the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in November, challenging whether that was appropriate. It was announced that the two sides would settle in December, but the details were not available at that time.

According to the ACLU of Alaska, the settlement is being paid by the state, not by Dunleavy and Babcock.

“Wednesday’s settlement marks the end of a years-long battle to defend the First Amendment rights of non-unionized state employees, who were subject to unprecedented demands by the Dunleavy Administration immediately after it took over state leadership in 2018,” reads in part a statement from the ACLU. “Exempt and partially exempt employees, including the doctors represented in this case, were told to provide a written pledge of loyalty to Governor Dunleavy’s political agenda and were told if they didn’t, they’d be terminated.”

According to the press release, the settlement includes a “pledge” from Dunleavy and the state to “refrain from using people’s political affiliation as a litmus test for employment decisions.”

Stephen Koteff, legal director at the ACLU of Alaska, called the outcome of the case significant.

“If we go back to November of 2018, the actions that the governor and Mr. Babcock took cast a pall on all state employment, all public employment, really,” he said.

It signaled that no one would be safe from political influence in their employment, Koteff said.

“If the actions that the governor and Mr. Babcock took were not — went unaddressed, then there’d be no end to the kinds of meddling that politicians would engage in when it came to state employees who are simply trying to do their jobs,” he said.

Koteff said an agreement was reached with the state to dismiss both cases.

“In return the state has agreed to pay a significant sum of damages to our clients,” he said. “... to make them whole and address the illegal and unconstitutional firings that they perpetrated.”

“More significantly,” Koteff continued. “All state employees now know from this moment on, the state of Alaska, whether it’s the governor or any of the political appointees of the state, must first consider fully the jobs people do and consider whether those jobs require political affiliation considerations before making decisions based on politics.”

Jeff Turner, a spokesperson for the governor’s office, provided the following statement:

“Today a settlement was finalized over a lawsuit brought by two former psychiatrists at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute. The state reached an agreement that all parties have approved and it settles all claims that were made, or could be made, by the two former employees.

“It is important to recognize that neither defendant, Governor Dunleavy or his former chief of staff, have admitted to any wrongdoing as part of the settlement. Rather, it was simply determined to be in the State’s best interest to settle the matter, with a reasonable settlement value, that avoids the risk and expense of continued litigation.

“Governor Dunleavy maintains that it is important for the state’s incoming chief executive during the transition period to have the authority to make policy changes, which includes staffing changes for those in policy positions, to ensure the new administration’s vision can be carried out.”

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