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Judge overrules several Allegheny County objections over late health director's lawsuit

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By Adam Brandolph and Aaron Aupperlee
Friday, April 4, 2014, 5:03 p.m.
 

A wrongful termination lawsuit filed by the late director of the Allegheny County Health Department will move forward despite his death, a county judge ordered on Friday.

Common Pleas Judge Christine A. Ward overruled eight county objections to the lawsuit filed by longtime health director Bruce Dixon against the county, the Health Department, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and council members in April 2012, a month after he was fired. Dixon, 74, died in February 2013.

Among the objections that Ward overruled was a county claim that Dixon did not have standing to sue.

County spokeswoman Amie Downs declined to comment.

“This case has huge implications, huge implications,” said Dixon's attorney, Virginia Cook. “It means that just because Dixon died doesn't mean that it's all over.”

Dixon, who served as director for 20 years, said his firing was politically motivated. The lawsuit contends the county executive can appoint members and approve regulations of the health department but does not have the authority to fire its director because it is an independent agency. Fitzgerald threatened to remove board members who did not vote to do so, the lawsuit says.

Cook said the lawsuit, in part, calls into question the legality of county boards and authorities whose members submitted resignation letters to Fitzgerald. Cook said members traded those letters for nominations to boards and authorities in an illegal quid-pro-quo move.

A ruling in their favor could nullify votes taken by the board of health, the airport authority and the Port Authority, Cook said, and potentially remove board members from their posts. “The sad part is that Dr. Dixon isn't alive to see this,” she said.

The county has 20 days to respond to the judge's ruling. Cook said she will start scheduling depositions with board members and county employees.

Adam Brandolph and Aaron Aupperlee are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Brandolph can be reached at 412-391-0927 or abrandolph@tribweb.com. Aupperlee can be reached at 412-320-7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com.

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