FILES LAWSUIT: Over the loss of his work for the administrative office of the courts.

Casey Copeland, a Prairie Grove lawyer, has filed a federal lawsuit against two officials of the state Supreme Court’s administrative office of the courts for terminating his contract to represent children in dependency-neglect cases.

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He alleges he lost the work shortly after he’d written state Rep. Charlene Fite, the Van Buren Republican, privately to object to her sponsorship of legislation to prohibit health care for transgender children. Fite is Copeland’s state representative.

The suit names Marty Sullivan, director of the administrative office of the courts, and Stasia Burk McDonald, director of the office’s dependency-neglect attorney ad litem program. McDonald, who works under Sullivan, terminated the contract

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In a declaration filed with the lawsuit,  Copeland said he’d been employed or worked under contract with the court office on dependency-neglect cases since 2012 and even recently had his work expanded. He was terminated on April 1 while working on a contract that was to last through June 30. He also represents children in domestic cases by appointment of judges and is paid through the administrative office, but not under state contract. He said he’d never received any negative comments about his work.

The contract was terminated about 48 hours after he wrote an email to Fite on March 30 on his personal email account about her sponsorship of HB 1570, the transgender care prohibition that became law after an override of Governor Hutchinson’s veto. Copeland knew Fite as more than his state representative. He’d opposed her election in 2018 as the Democratic Libertarian nominee. He had written Fite before, in 2019, about suggested legislation with no ill consequences. This time was different. From the declaration:

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Through subsequent Freedom of Information Act requests, Copeland found that Fite had sent his email to a staff attorney; to Sullivan, and to the assistant director of the ad litem program, Janet Bledsoe, with the comment “should ad litem info be on email of this nature.” Copeland’s email identified him as an ad litem attorney and included his office of the courts’ email address in the “signature block” portion of the email. Less than two hours after he’d sent his email to Fite, Sullivan emailed five others on the staff with the query, “Sam, terminate contract?”

Copeland said he was offered no explanation and a request for an exit interview was declined. He said he’d used the ad litem title and AOC address in a letter to Fite in 2019 with no objection from her or the office. In that case, he was making a suggestion about legislation and she forwarded it to the office of the courts. Copeland also has discovered, however, that Fite had written in 2020 to Janet Bledsoe, assistant director of the ad litem program, to say that polling indicated Copeland was “pulling” votes from her. Fite asked that the communication be kept confidential.

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The loss of the contract has cost Copeland work and income, he said.

Based on the timing of the termination and the communications uncovered in the FOI, Copeland concluded the termination by McDonald “was done at the behest of Defendant Sullivan and instigated by Representative Fite in retaliation for my negative email to her on an issue of public concern about her actions as my state representative as sponsor for HB 1570.”

The lawsuit says Copeland’s First Amendment rights were violated by being punished by the state for communicating with his legislator about a matter of public concern. It seeks an injunction to prevent the office of the courts from hiring a replacement for Copeland and an order that he be reinstated and renewed for another year.

The lawsuit was filed on Copeland’s behalf by the ACLU of Arkansas, which is already challenging the constitutionality of the transgender care ban law in another federal lawsuit.

The lawsuit indicates the state expected to be sued.

Plaintiff has never been notified by either Defendant nor any AOC administrator, nor is he aware, of any complaint or concern about his contractual performance or his ability to provide the contracted-for services.  Despite asking for an explanation for the termination, he never received one.

However, a text from Jennifer Craun [the courts office’s director of the juvenile justice division], dated April 1, 2021, at approximately 4:54 P.M. (after Plaintiff was notified of his termination) states, “…but could we go ahead and tell him his contract was terminated due to his use of his ad litem title and AOC web address in a political e-mail? That is what we will say if we face a lawsuit and I think it could help smooth relations with others because he is mischaracterizing the truth.”

I’ve sent emails to Sullivan and Fite seeking comment.

 

UPDATE: email from Fite:

“When employees of state agencies appear before legislative committees, they are asked to be clear as to whether they are representing their employer, or speaking as a private citizen. The same should apply in written communication.

”If you have additional questions, I’ll do my best to respond. I have no knowledge as to the reasons for Mr. Copeland’s being terminated. I just learned of this termination late today.”

To follow up questions she said:

“His email included his title with the AOC, as well as several other titles having to do with his court work. I sent it to AOC without comment.

“Again, I do not know the reasons for his termination.”

I’ve asked her why use of similar information in 2019 email to her didn’t prompt a comment.

She responded “in that case it was appropriate for him to use his AOC identification, as he was suggesting changes in the law affecting Ad Litems. “