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Pa. House GOP staffer fired after reporting mold can pursue whistleblower claims, court rules

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Peter Hall, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
March 15, 2024

A former Pennsylvania House Republican Caucus staff member can move forward with a whistleblower lawsuit claiming that she was fired for reporting mold in a state representative’s district office, a Commonwealth Court panel ruled.

Marcel Ingram’s lawsuit against the Republican Caucus claims that staff in the caucus violated the Pennsylvania Whistleblower Law in July 2022 by terminating her employment in state Rep. Eric Davanzo’s (R-Westmoreland) district office in West Newton.

According to the Commonwealth Court opinion, Ingram had complained starting in May 2022 of strong, foul odors in the office that caused her to have headaches and her eyes to burn. Ingram mentioned the odors to Davanzo, who suggested they were from a neighbor and that Ingram should contact the landlord.

Eventually, a member of the Republican Caucus’ legal counsel instructed Ingram to purchase tests to check for the presence of mold. The tests were positive and Ingram reported that to Davanzo, who angrily rebuffed her, the opinion said.

Davanzo angrily asked Ingram, “Who the f— gave you permission to do this?” the opinion noted. 

Davanzo then complained to several Republican Caucus members, expressing displeasure that Ingram had conducted the tests. The Republican Caucus terminated Ingram about a week after the positive tests, the opinion says.

Ingram’s attorney, Nick Kennedy, said he and his client are pleased that the case is moving forward and are evaluating the Commonwealth Court’s decision with regard to one element of Ingram’s case that it dismissed. An attorney and a spokesperson for the Republican Caucus did not respond to requests for comment.

Ingram also sued Davanzo, former Republican Caucus Chairman George Dunbar (R-Westmoreland) and six other caucus employees in federal court alleging they violated her First Amendment rights. U.S. District Judge Marilyn J. Horan dismissed the free speech claim, but Ingram is appealing the decision in the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

In its opinion, written by Judge Lori Dumas, the Commonwealth Court panel overruled two of the Republican Caucus’s preliminary objections to the suit, claiming Ingram had failed to allege all of the elements of a Whistleblower Law violation.

To make a claim under the Whistleblower Law, a complainant must show that the defendant made a “wrongdoing” and that the complainant reported it. 

The court noted that while the Pennsylvania General Safety Law and the property maintenance code in West Newton don’t specifically prohibit maintaining moldy premises, the Republican Caucus has a general obligation to protect employees’ health and safety. With additional evidence, Ingram could establish that there was a “wrongdoing,” Dumas wrote.

Ingram also claimed that the Republican Caucus violated its ethics policy by ordering Ingram to carry out mold tests because the task was not related to her assigned duties. The court found Ingram did not show she reported a violation of the ethics policy and dismissed that claim but allowed Ingram to amend her lawsuit.

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This article is republished from Pennsylvania Capital-Star under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.