Judge rules Roper’s lawsuit against EBR council can go forward

Baton Rouge Parish Attorney Mary Roper will have her day in court.

A district court judge on Friday ruled that Roper’s lawsuit against her bosses on the Metro Council can move forward, despite objections by the council’s attorney who argued this week that the suit should be tossed.

Judge Michael Caldwell set a hearing for Sept. 5 to hear arguments about whether Roper should be considered an at-will employee.

Roper, who has served as the chief legal officer of the city-parish government since 2008, filed suit against the Metro Council earlier this month to stave off a scheduled vote to fire her.

The issue of whether Roper is an at-will employee is key because it determines the conditions under which she can be fired. Roper’s attorneys argue that she should not be considered an at-will employee, which means the Metro Council would have to demonstrate substantive cause for her removal.

The Metro Council’s attorney Murphy Foster III contends that Roper is an at-will employee because she is an attorney, and clients have the right to fire their attorneys for any reason. He said Roper also is a political appointee who serves at the council’s pleasure.

Roper’s lawyer, Wade Shows, who preceded Roper as parish attorney, said according to the Plan of Government and the Louisiana Constitution, Roper is defined as a public official who can be removed only if convicted of a felony or gross malfeasance.

If Caldwell ultimately rules Roper is not at-will, that means the council does not have enough ammunition to legally remove her from her office, Shows said.

Foster said Shows’ references for employee protections do not apply to Roper.

“I still firmly believe the judge will rule she’s at-will because she’s an attorney, and the council is her client,” he said. “Ultimately, in my opinion, what this case boils down to is that a lawyer cannot sue their client to demand they remain your lawyer.”

The Metro Council is still scheduled to vote on removing Roper on Sept. 10. Caldwell said Friday he would not issue an injunction to prevent the vote, but the council’s actions against Roper could be limited if the judge were to rule that the council must provide additional cause to fire her.

Mayor Pro Tem Chandler Loupe said he looks forward to a public hearing to address Roper’s shortcomings.

“I am willing to testify in court and/or at her hearing and reveal in detail all allegations against Ms. Roper and factual evidence to support each and every one,” Loupe said.

In recent months, a faction of council members expressed their intentions to remove Roper, stating they have lost confidence in her ability to run the Parish Attorney’s Office.

They have accused her of mismanagement and the improper sharing of proprietary information related to copyrighted software belonging to the city.

Roper has fought back, calling the attacks on her job a political ploy by the attorneys on the council who want to give the job to one of their friends.

Hearings to remove Roper were initially scheduled for May but were twice deferred to give her an opportunity to negotiate a new job within city-parish government and retain her pension.

She ultimately rejected a job with the city-parish Retirement System as legal counsel before filing her suit against the council.

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen. For more coverage of city-parish government, follow City Hall Buzz blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/cityhallbuzz/