Maricopa County to Appeal Jury Award in Case of Lawyer Fired for Talking to Press

Maricopa County will appeal a jury award in the case of a lawyer fired for speaking to the press, ignoring a judge's harsh criticism of the county's actions.

Maria Brandon, who worked for the county as a lawyer for more than 30 years, was fired in June 2011 after she angered county officials with a quote that appeared in an Arizona Republic article. In February, a jury awarded her $638,148. The Republic , interestingly, didn't cover the trial or verdict.

In remarkable statements made after the verdict, U.S. District Judge Frederick Martone likened the county attorney's office to a soap opera and said he felt sorry for the people who have to work there. Yet the Board voted last week to appeal the case to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

See also: -County Officials Violated Rights of Lawyer Who Spoke to Newspaper, Says Judge -Maria Brandon Trial: Catfight, Firing Detailed...

After the many millions of dollars spent in legal fees on the feud between the Sheriff's Office and county administration, county leaders apparently believe preventing Brandon from receiving her award would be worth a few hundred thousand more in legal fees. County officials declined comment on the case.

Brandon had gotten on the wrong side of history after being assigned to work on lawsuits filed against Sheriff Joe Arpaio at a time of intense feuding between county management, the Sheriff's Office, and the County Attorney's Office. In a statement to an Arizona Republic reporter, Brandon let the world know -- however subtly -- that she had a problem with a risk-management decision to pay Arpaio protesters a huge settlement award. As leaked memos also showed, Brandon believed the protesters -- who'd sued after being arrested wrongfully by deputies -- could be bought off for a pittance. County officials were embarrassed by the Republic's article and, according to evidence in the case, retaliated by first taking away most of Brandon's work, then cooking up a bogus reason to fire her.

In a September 9 ruling that rebuffed a last-ditch attempt by the county to have the jury decision tossed, Martone blasted the county and said there was more than sufficient evidence that officials violated Brandon's civil rights.

We've since obtained a transcript of comments Martone made in open court after the jury verdict and are publishing some of those comments here -- they're worth your time, we promise. Remember, in the following passage, Judge Martone's talking about the current regime under Bill Montgomery, not the bad old days with disgraced ex-politician Andrew Thomas:

"We've heard an awful lot of evidence in this case, but I don't think we've heard any substantial evidence that would warrant the discharge of a lawyer who had been working for the County for 30 years.

"It's not very credible, and, thus, the jury can make all these alternative findings that the plaintiff is asking them to make.

"There were representations by the County Attorney that he wanted to promote fairness and justice. It's hard to believe, quite frankly, some of the evidence that we've heard in the last four days.

"I feel very sorry for the lawyers and the employees in the County Attorney's Office who have to live and work in that environment. It's so antithetical to the notion of professionalism and lawyers' standing in the community.

"It's almost been a kind of a 'Peyton Place/As the World Turns' approach to employment, in many ways embarrassing. And the irony of it all is that all of this was supposed to have been in response for an even worse regime.

"So it is evidence that there really was something wrong in Denmark."

Read our previous coverage for more details on the often-unbelievable testimony in the case to which the judge alludes. Martone continued his scolding of county officials while thanking members of the jury:
"All right. Then I think we'll say this case is over. We recess this case. And, again, I can't thank the jurors enough for spending eight days of your lives resolving a public question.

"You know, this case did involve public issues that really go to the heart of our process. And from my perspective as a judge and a lawyer, it's an unusual case in having lawyers representing cases brought by lawyers against other lawyers.

"And Phoenix is not such a large community that lawyers don't know who the other lawyers are. And so it really had a dimension to it that is not present in most of the cases that we have here.

"And I must tell you and I can tell you now something that I would not have told you before your verdicts that I think the case raised troubling issues, some things that I'd never contemplated before. Paralegals telling lawyers what to do. Administrators instructing attorneys who they want as lawyers and who they don't want as lawyers. Lawyers acquiescing in decisions made or recommendations made by administrators. Just a whole host of issues presented in this case, all against the backdrop of how one really treats others.

"You know, the law itself -- and I think everyone would agree, although it may sound kind of harsh to say it -- but the law itself is the lowest common denominator of human behavior. It's the bottom beyond which one cannot and ought not go. But it doesn't define the best human behavior or good practices or what our aspirations are.

"To hear witnesses say that they did this because they could, not because it was a best practice or whatever, that leaves one a little bit cold about how our public processes elsewhere are being administered.

"In my view, lots of bad advice here. Human relations lawyers, human resource lawyers virtually denying that they have any role as a counselor or as an advisor, leaving all sorts of questions. I hope that whatever, whatever the outcome is for these parties either today, tomorrow, or in the future, that the lawyers and their clients will get together and talk about how our government should be administered and how the aspirations ought to be well beyond the minimum. And maybe it will."

Lotsa luck on that appeal, county.

Got a tip? Send it to: Ray Stern.

Follow Valley Fever on Twitter at @ValleyFeverPHX. Follow Ray Stern on Twitter at @RayStern.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern