YOUNGSTOWN, OH— Ricky Morrison, a Mahoning County maintenance worker, has received $175,000 to settle his federal lawsuit against Commissioners Carol Rimedio-Righetti, David Ditzler, and Anthony Traficanti, and Administrator Audrey Tillis. Morrison’s lawsuit detailed an alleged pattern of retaliation, intimidation, bribery, telecommunications fraud, interference with civil rights, dereliction of duty, failure to report crimes, and violations of Ohio’s Open Meetings Act.
Morrison, diagnosed with cancer in May 2022, began working as a county maintenance worker in September of the same year. Despite his health condition, Morrison demonstrated exemplary job performance, with no disciplinary issues.
The lawsuit alleged this:
- On November 28, 2022, Morrison attended a Mahoning County Board of Elections meeting and sat next to Commissioner Rimedio-Righetti’s challenger. Observing this, Rimedio-Righetti exclaimed with disgust, "You work for us. Unreal!"
- Just a few days later, the three Commissioners—Rimedio-Righetti, David Ditzler, and Anthony Traficanti, and Administrator Audrey Tillis, held a secret meeting in violation of Ohio’s Open Meetings Act, During the meeting—contrary to Ohio Rev. Code § 121.22(G) and (H)—no vote was taken to go into executive session and no public vote was taken on Morrison’s termination. The secret meeting wasn’t even announced in advance as required by § 122.22(F) of the Act. Defendants Rimedio-Righetti and Ditzler, the complaint alleges, decided to fire Morrison while hidden from public scrutiny.
- On December 2, 2022, Morrison was called into his supervisor’s office, where he was told “the commissioners” decided to fire him. Shocked and devastated, Morrison surrendered his county property, retrieved his belongings, and was swiftly escorted out. Morrison was fired for engaging in, during his off hours as a private citizen, First Amendment-protected expression.
- Morrison and his family suffered devastating harm from this ordeal. The lack of medical benefits and uncertainty about his ability to obtain cancer treatment and insurance for himself, his wife, and two daughters caused severe and undue stress.
- On December 9, 2022, Morrison’s counsel emailed a letter to the commissioners demanding Morrison’s immediate and unconditional reinstatement from his unlawful termination in retaliation for exercising his First Amendment rights.
- On December 13, 2022, Prosecutor DeGenova emailed Morrison’s counsel that Morrison’s termination was void from the beginning and instructed Morrison to return to work the next day. But DeGenova, who claimed to have performed an “investigation,” in her email went well beyond what a normal lawyer would write, the federal complaint alleged. Instead of just announcing Morrison’s reinstatement and generally demurring on liability issues, DeGenovo went so far as to exonerate the commissioners’ behavior, claim they had no role in Morrison’s termination, and, it would seem, falsely scapegoat County Administrator Audrey Tillis for supposedly having acted alone without authority. (DeGenova claimed this despite a pandemic-era commissioners' resolution giving Tillis authority.)
- DeGenova failed to provide any details of her purported “investigation,” like to whom she spoke and what documents she reviewed. The entire “investigation” was supposedly completed in just one day.
- Meanwhile, Traficanti released statements claiming to have withdrawn from the situation because he did not agree with the unlawful and retaliatory termination and ensuing cover-up. Traficanti’s statements directly conflicted with DeGenova’s claim that the termination “was not politically motivated.” And Traficanti called DeGenova’s story about Tillis being solely responsible “very – very odd.” Had DeGenova, during her purported “investigation,” spoken with Commissioner Traficanti—which any competent lawyer investigating whether commissioners engaged in retaliation would do, then she would have known her statements exonerating the Commissioners were false. Traficanti told third parties that DeGenova knew the true, retaliatory reasons for Morrison's firing.
- The suit alleged that DeGenova's effort to cover up for Rimedio-Righetti and Ditzler was a gratuity for their past and expected political support in the race for prosecutor.
- With Traficanti confirming the retaliatory nature of the termination and strong evidence of the county’s attempts to illegally cover-up their wrongdoings, the commissioners were caught red-handed.
“Two Mahoning County Commissioners allegedly fired a cancer-stricken line worker because their skins are too thin to embrace the values of the First Amendment,” Subodh Chandra, Morrison's lead counsel, said. “And then they tried to cover it up. Even that, they bungled.”
"And unfortunately, according to Commissioner Traficanti, Prosecutor Gina DeGenova helped them with the cover up."
Mr. Morrison is represented by Chandra Law Firm attorneys Chandra and Donald P. Screen.
Martin P. Desmond—himself once a victim of retaliation when he blew the whistle on unconstitutional misconduct in former Mahoning County Prosecutor Paul Gains’s and DeGenova's prosecutor's office—was co-counsel. Chandra Law represented Desmond in that matter, which resulted in a $550,000 settlement. DeGenova led, in-house, the botched defense of the alleged misconduct. In that matter, she was alleged to have assented to false statements to a tribunal, and never corrected them.
The federal civil-rights amended complaint in the case captioned Morrison v. Mahoning County, et al., N.D. Ohio Case No. 4:22-cv-02314, can be found here.
Notably, the settlement agreement does not release Prosecutor Gina DeGenova from liabilty. She escaped accountability in the case for her conduct through the judicially manufactured doctrine of absolute litigation privilege. The court did not acknowledge or address Mr. Morrison's arguments that her alleged misconduct took place outside of litigation. Because the settlement did not release DeGenova, Mr. Morrison is free to appeal what he believes was a faulty decision by the court. Regardless, DeGenova escaped accountability on a technicality and not on through a formal decision exonerating her from the factual allegations. Any claim of vindication is false.
Subodh Chandra, Morrison's lead counsel said, "Prosecutors shouldn't be allowed to get away with making knowingly making false statements to cover up for their political cronies. The voting public deserves a more honest prosecutor than Gina DeGenova and should scrutinize her conduct in this case very carefully. Commissioner Traficanti told everyone who would listen: she knew Morrison's firing was retaliatory."
Martin Desmond, co-counsel, said, "I praise Ricky Morrison for standing up for his rights. It takes a lot of guts to do the right thing in Mahoning County. I’m happy for Ricky and his family. And I’m always happy when the truth comes out, despite attempts to hush things up."
Chandra Law has experience obtaining justice for victims of First Amendment retaliation, including public employees. The firm helped pioneer work in holding individuals and companies accountable for civil liability for criminal acts, securing the two leading Ohio Supreme Court opinions on the topic. If you think that your rights have been violated, you may contact us to discuss your options.
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