ELKHART — A former Elkhart city attorney, who claimed she was fired by Mayor Tim Neese because of her age, gender and party affiliation, has lost her lawsuit against the mayor.
Margaret Marnocha filed a lawsuit against the city and the mayor on Sept. 6, 2016, in the U.S. District Court in South Bend, arguing that Neese, a Republican, did not have the right to fire her when he defeated former Mayor Dick Moore, a Democrat, in the 2015 election.
A few days after the election, Neese went to Marnocha’s office to talk with her. According to Marnocha, he said, “I just want you to know I’ve been where you are.” Then, Neese told her, “I want you to know you’re fired.”
Marnocha had a ready response. She told him she was immune from termination because she was not appointed.
Neese said she was being fired, “because I want to hire my own guy.”
“Stop, stop right there. You need to consult an attorney,” Marnocha said.
She then gave Neese a memorandum she had prepared about what positions were subject to mayoral appointment. Neese told her he had already spoken with an attorney; his decision was made.
Vlado Vranjes, corporation counsel and chief legal adviser to Moore, kept his position when Neese became mayor. Neese hired two additional men, Lawrence Meteiver and Randall Arndt, to the Law Department.
The suit noted that Meteiver and Arndt both receive higher pay than what Marnocha did. “All positions offered to females by Tim Neese,” the suit continues, “were to females significantly younger, or appearing significantly younger than plaintiff.” Marnocha is in her mid-sixties.
Marnocha was one of at least six city workers the incoming mayor let go. Among the others were Bea Jones, the deputy in the Elkhart City Controller’s Office; Jerry Wenger, head of the Elkhart Central Garage; Arvis Dawson, executive assistant to Moore; and Vicci Moore, head of the Human Resources Department.
Marnocha was originally employed by the city as the utility attorney on Sept. 27, 2010. During her tenure, several other attorneys resigned and were not immediately replaced. Marnocha received additional duties and a raise and was made deputy city attorney in May 2015.
District court judge Philip P. Simon found that, in the role as deputy city attorney, “Marnocha was a policymaker.” Among other duties, she advised department heads, assisted Vranjes, attended some City Council meetings and all Board of Works meetings. She also worked with Mayor Moore on committees and gave him legal advice. The judge noted that Marnocha is a Democrat.
Court documents stated that Neese first heard of Marnocha in the media in 2014, as Moore was working on a forced annexation. Marnocha did the legal work on the project and publicly represented Moore’s favorable opinion of the forced annexation, which became a controversial topic in the 2015 election. Neese, who opposes forced annexation, received 64 percent of the votes, defeating Moore.
However, Moore never formally appointed Marnocha, and so she claimed Neese could not fire her simply over a difference of opinion, and he had violated her First Amendment protection.
But Simon did not buy that argument.
“There definitely is no requirement for direct appointment to be an immediate adviser with respect to constitutional or legal powers,” he wrote.
In reality, Marnocha had access to her political superiors’ confidential, politically sensitive thoughts.
“A public official like Mayor Neese is not required to ‘retain, in a confidential or policymaking job, persons who are not his political friends and may be his enemies,’” Simon wrote, referencing a 1993 Court of Appeals opinion.
Even if this weren’t the case, Simon wrote, he would have still granted Neese the win on Marnocha’s claims of age and sex discrimination.
“She has not come close to showing any pretext,” he wrote. He said Neese’s reason to fire her was “pure” and “nondiscriminatory.”
Marnocha said Friday that she and her attorney are reviewing the case and might appeal.
Neese declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Follow Rasmus S. Jorgensen on Twitter at @ReadRasmus