A federal judge has ruled in favor of former Idaho Transportation Director Pamela Lowe on a key legal question of her wrongful termination lawsuit against the state.
U.S. District Judge Ronald Bush in a decision filed Saturday agreed with Lowe that the state must provide a reason for her 2009 firing, and against the state’s argument that Lowe was an at-will employee who could be fired at any time.
In his 57-page decision, Bush calls the state’s argument in the case “less than airtight.” By law, the Idaho Transportation Board may remove its director for “inefficiency, neglect of duty, malfeasance and nonfeasance in office.”
Lowe contends she received satisfactory job reviews and was fired in a political power play to help Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter and his big campaign donors.
The ruling means Lowe’s lawsuit can proceed. She is seeking back pay, reinstatement or compensation in lieu of that, and attorney’s fees. No amount is specified.
Her lawsuit contends she was fired by the Transportation Department board after refusing to bow to threats by governor’s aides not to interfere with a contract originally worth $50 million. The contract benefited URS Corp. and CH2M Hill, two engineering companies that at the time of Lowe’s firing had given the governor at least $22,000 combined since 2005.
Nearly all of Bush’s ruling focused on the interpretation of one sentence in an Idaho statute that said the transportation director serves at the pleasure of the board, but then went on to list four reasons for which the director may be removed. Lowe and the state both seized on the sentence to bolster their own arguments.
Bush acknowledged the statute isn’t a “model of clarity.” But looking back to the statute’s creation in the early 1970s, he decided lawmakers at the time had concerns about undue political influence over one of the state’s largest agencies when they wrote the statute.