State of Alaska, psychiatrists settle case over firings

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — The state of Alaska has settled with two psychiatrists who said they were wrongfully fired when Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy took office.

Under the agreement, announced Wednesday, the state agrees to pay Anthony Blanford $220,000 and John Bellville, $275,000, reflecting lost wages, damages and attorneys’ fees. The agreement says the appropriation is subject to legislative approval.

Both worked at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute and declined to submit resignation letters requested shortly after Dunleavy’s 2018 election by the chair of his transition team and later his chief of staff, Tuckerman Babcock. Blanford and Bellville subsequently were fired.

Attorneys for the men in court records argued Babcock in demanding resignations from a broad swath of public employees “unquestionably sought to compel speech in support of Governor-elect Dunleavy’s political agenda.” They said the request sought to elicit “a pledge of loyalty.”

The lawsuit was brought against Dunleavy, Babcock and the state. Babcock is no longer with the administration.

U.S. District Court Judge John Sedwick in October ruled in favor of Blanford and Bellville and as part of the order said they were entitled to judgment on a claim for damages against Dunleavy and Babcock in their personal capacities. Dunleavy and Babcock filed an appeal.

Sedwick, in his ruling, said the scope of the demand for resignations, “which undisputedly went beyond what was customary during an administration transition, and extended to employees not occupying policymaking positions, demonstrates that the purpose went beyond routine employment action.”

“They were not actually asking at-will employees to resign en mass,” Sedwick continued. “Rather, they were asking employees to offer up their job to the new administration’s express approval on a basis left unclear, but with suggestive political underpinnings.”

Attorneys for both sides in December said they were working to resolve the case.

Under the settlement, the defendants agree the state “may only take an employee’s political views or affiliations into account in making any employment-related decision when the State determines through reasonable and bona fide efforts that the employee is properly categorized as a ‘policymaker’ under existing case law, or it is a position for which political views or affiliations are an appropriate requirement for the effective performance of the job, or when otherwise permitted by law.”

Stephen Koteff, legal director for the ACLU of Alaska, who represented the psychiatrists, said that provision was important.

“That is something that we believe will add a significant layer of protection for all state employees going forward,” Koteff said.

The settlement agreement states that it does not constitute an admission of liability.

Dunleavy’s office, in a statement, said it was “important to recognize” that neither Dunleavy nor Babcock “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.”

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,” the statement said.

Sedwick in a separate case last month ruled that Elizabeth Bakalar’s December 2018 firing by the state violated her free speech and associational rights under the U.S. and state constitutions. Bakalar alleged she was wrongly fired as an attorney with the Alaska Department of Law over political opinions expressed on a personal blog.

According to Sedwick’s order, Bakalar submitted a resignation letter and Babcock said he fired her because he considered the tone of her resignation letter to be unprofessional. But Sedwick said Babcock did not accept the resignation of an assistant attorney general who used the same wording he had found objectionable when used by Bakalar.