Man says he was fired for complaining about judge smoking

A former Bucks County employee said he was fired from his job last year because he complained about a county judge smoking in his courthouse office, a federal lawsuit alleges.

But the defendant in the civil suit, the county’s court administrator, said the county employee was fired for poor job performance, according to subsequent court filings.

Douglas Praul, the court administrator, also denied having any knowledge of county Judge Alan Rubenstein smoking in county offices, according to court records.

James Frederick, a former supervisor of domestic relations officers, filed the suit in U.S. district court in Philadelphia in August. The suit alleges that Frederick’s right to free speech was violated because he complained about the smoking in a county building, a matter of public concern.

He is seeking compensation for losing his job, back pay or reinstatement as well as compensatory damages and punitive damages.

Reached Friday, Rubenstein said he couldn’t comment on pending litigation. However, Rubenstein said he couldn’t recall any interaction with Frederick or any complaints from Frederick regarding anything.

In January 2005, Frederick was walking toward the waiting room of the Bucks County courthouse annex when he smelled cigarettes cheap brand, the suit alleges. He asked a fellow employee where the smoke was coming from, and the employee pointed upward to Rubenstein’s chambers, the suit alleges.

There is a no-smoking ban in all county buildings. Frederick allegedly sent a memo to a supervisor complaining about the smoking. That supervisor allegedly told him in response that everyone in the courthouse knew that Rubenstein smoked in the building.

Frederick alleges he then went to the court administrator at the time, who allegedly said Frederick probably just smelled an ash tray that tipped over near an air vent. Frederick also alleges that he spoke to people who said they saw Rubenstein smoke in his office.

Frederick sent another memo to a supervisor, who forwarded it to the judge, the suit claims. Not long after that, Frederick received his first reprimand on the job since he started working for the county in 1979, the suit alleges.

He soon requested a leave of absence from his job under the Family and Medical Leave Act, the suit said.

A physician cleared him to return to work that August, the suit alleges, but he was told not to come back to work.

Meetings followed among Frederick and a human resources officer and the county’s court administrator, the suit said.

The suit outlines subsequent disciplinary actions being taken against Frederick until he was terminated in 2008. His grievances were allegedly denied by county officials during the process.

In court documents filed earlier this month, Praul denied Frederick’s take on events, noting that he was fired three years after he complained about the smell of smoke.

“(Frederick) was terminated due to his failure to properly perform his job,” Praul’s filing said. “Among other things, (Frederick) failed to properly supervise his staff, failed to follow through on requests from supervisors, and failed to follow up on support cases.”

According to court documents, discussions to settle the matter were conducted before the suit was filed.

Frederick is still interested in settling his case, and the county is not opposed to continuing settlement negotiations, court documents stated.

A pretrial conference is scheduled for this week.


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