Judge rules Fayette commissioner's civil rights not violated by Democratic peers

| Friday, Nov. 30, 2012, 9:44 a.m.

A Fayette County commissioner plans to appeal a judge's order dismissing her federal civil rights lawsuit against two of her peers.

Republican Commissioner Angela Zimmerlink alleged in the February 2010 filing that Democrats Vincent Zapotosky and Vincent Vicites purposely left her out of various discussions as political retaliation. She alleged their actions violated her free speech and equal protection rights.

On Thursday, a federal judge in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh dismissed the lawsuit. In an opinion attached to the order, U.S. Magistrate Judge Cynthia Reed Eddy said Zimmerlink failed to prove her rights had been violated.

“Plaintiff has not alleged sufficient evidence adducing a First Amendment retaliation claim,” Eddy wrote. “Further, plaintiff has failed to show that she is entitled to protection under the 14th Amendment Equal Protection Clause, or that defendants had no rational reason for treating her differently.”

Zimmerlink's attorney, Jordan L. Strassburger of Strassburger McKenna Gutnick and Gefsky of Pittsburgh, said he plans to file an appeal.

“We hope to get the court reversed,” Strassburger said. “We want a jury trial.”

Zapotosky said on Friday that he had hoped Eddy's decision would put an end to the lawsuit and allow the board to move forward.

“I feel, even though we may have disagreements, that there are ways of addressing that outside of lawsuits,” Zapotosky said.

Zapotosky said allegations that he tried to stifle Zimmerlink's rights are troubling.

“I was raised to never deprive anyone of their rights, and that always bothered me,” he said. “I've tried, and extended myself many times, to reach out to her, and I will continue to do that.”

Vicites, who is no longer a commissioner after losing his bid for re-election, said Eddy's decision confirms his contention that the lawsuit was politically motivated.

“When it was filed, I said it was a frivolous lawsuit, and that I thought it was politically motivated and would only cost the taxpayers money,” Vicites said. “I stand by that.”

In her opinion, Eddy noted that Zimmerlink claimed Zapotosky and Vicites excluded her from preliminary discussions on the budget, contract negotiations and the hiring of an information technology director.

In addition, Zimmerlink claimed the two commissioners manipulated board meeting minutes “to vilify her” and forced her to obtain her own attorney in another lawsuit.

Eddy said none of those actions would have stopped most people from exercising their right to free speech.

“Defendant commissioners conduct of slighting Plaintiff from being copied on emails, ostracizing her from budget meetings and ignoring, excluding and/or lying to Plaintiff would not chill the speech of a person of ordinary firmness,” Eddy wrote. “Even viewing Defendant Commissioners' conduct collectively, it would not keep a person of ordinary firmness from speaking.”

As for Zimmerlink's allegation that her right to equal protection was violated when her Democratic peers treated her differently because she is a Republican, Eddy pointed out that such behavior is to be expected in politics.

“Plaintiff has failed to adduce evidence that Defendants had no rational basis for treating her differently,” Eddy wrote. “To the contrary, it is axiomatic and expected in the political arena that elected officials treat political allies differently than political foes.”

Strassburger said he will file an appeal with the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Liz Zemba is a reporter forTrib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-601-2166 or lzemba@tribweb.com.

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