State education officials seek dismissal of Armenti lawsuit
By Richard Gazarik
Published: Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education and members of its Board of Governors have asked a federal judge in Harrisburg to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the deposed president of California University of Pennsylvania.
Angelo Armenti Jr., 72, filed a lawsuit in October alleging that the system, state Education Secretary Ron Tomalis, Chancellor John Cavanaugh and governors Guido Picchini, Marie Conley and Ronald Henry violated Armenti's civil rights and conspired to fire him because he complained to the board about Cavanaugh's interference in Armenti's management of the school. He further accused them of defamation and breach of contract.
Also named as a defendant is Michael Slavin, president of the California chapter of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, which represents professors. Slavin is chairman of the theater department. The suit against Slavin alleges defamation and interference in the contractual relationship between Armenti and the state system.
Attorneys for the state system filed a brief last week arguing that if PASSHE is immune from legal action, so are its employees and officials of the agency, which oversees the state's 14 publicly owned universities.
They also argued that Armenti failed to prove how the defendants conspired against him.
Attorneys Samuel Simon and Matthew Lautman, of Houston Harbaugh in Pittsburgh, said Armenti's speech is not protected by the First Amendment because anything he said was spoken in the scope of his official duties as a university president and not as a private citizen.
Armenti declined comment on Tuesday.
“It's now a legal proceeding. I'll save any comments for that legal forum,” he said.
Kenn Marshall, a spokesman for the state system, also declined comment.
Bruce Antkowiak, a former federal prosecutor who teaches law at St. Vincent College near Latrobe, said Pennsylvania likes to invoke sovereign immunity to lessen its potential liability in lawsuits.
“They hold onto it like grim death,” he said. “It gets them out of all kinds of difficulty. It's a big deal, because in a lot of circumstances, it keeps people from suing.”
However, Antkowiak said, if federal issues are involved, Pennsylvania might not be able to claim it is immune from Armenti's lawsuit. Armenti claims his First Amendment and other civil rights were violated.
“For example, in the case of a police beating, the state can't invoke immunity,” he said.
Law professor Bruce Ledwitz of Duquesne University said that “state immunity is not relevant, but there is federal immunity for the states,” although he said a state claim of federal immunity might not apply in this case.
According to PASSHE, Armenti failed to detail how the state system was responsible for waste and wrongdoing. The motion noted that Armenti was an at-will employee and could be fired at any time without cause, according to the terms of his contract.
Armenti was fired on May 16 after two decades as president of the Washington County school, which paid him $227,000 a year.
He was dismissed a day before PASSHE released a report on a review of the university's financial practices, which accused him of misrepresenting Cal U's financial situation and diverting public money to a private foundation affiliated with the university.
The examination found that cost overruns on the spacious, $59 million Convocation Center amounted to more than $6.2 million. Armenti also spent $1.1 million in student housing fees to purchase a farm near the university.
Accountants questioned why the Student Association Inc., which owns and manages campus housing, funneled money to the Foundation for California University of Pennsylvania.
Faculty criticized Armenti for rebuilding the campus with expensive construction projects and increasing the university's debt at a time when student enrollment was declining and tuition was increasing.
Armenti's last year as president was marked by turmoil between the administration and professors and faculty lawsuits. Now retired, Armenti writes a blog about the future of higher education.
Richard Gazarik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6292 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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