An appeals court has revived a lawsuit that former Capital Area Legal Services Corp. Executive Director James Wayne Sr. filed against the now-defunct private, nonprofit legal aid group after he was fired for a second time last year.
The CALSC board initially fired Wayne on Jan. 11, 2011, but Wayne claimed in a lawsuit that his termination was illegal because the vote was taken in executive session. The board fired him again on March 31, 2011, and Wayne sued again on grounds that some board members voted by phone in violation of the state’s Open Meetings Law.
In throwing out Wayne’s second suit in June 2011, state District Judge Tim Kelley declared the board’s second termination of Wayne valid and ruled CALSC is not a public body within the meaning of the Open Meetings Law.
CALSC attorney Martin Golden had argued to Kelley that CALSC is a private corporation whose board members are volunteers, not public officials. Wayne’s attorney, Wade Shows, had countered that the agency receives local, state and federal funding and performs a public function.
A three-judge panel of the state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal reversed Kelley on Wednesday and sent the case back to him for “an evidentiary hearing on the issue of whether CALSC is a public body for the purpose of the Open Meetings Law.”
“I’m excited about it,” Wayne said Thursday. “I thought Kelley’s ruling was wrong all along.”
Shows reiterated that CALSC received taxpayer money and said the public cannot watch the deliberations of a public body “when they’re conducted over the telephone.”
Golden described the 1st Circuit decision as strictly procedural and said the appellate court “hasn’t weighed in one way or the other.”
Circuit Judge Jewel “Duke” Welch wrote for the panel, which included fellow Circuit Judges Randolph Parro and John Pettigrew, that it is undisputed that CALSC is a private, nonprofit corporation established pursuant to Louisiana law.
But that fact does not settle the question of “whether it is a public body for the purpose of the Open Meetings Law,” nor does the fact that the entity receives public money, Welch stated in a 22-page decision.
The judge noted that CALSC’s own bylaws mandated that the board’s meetings be open to the public, unless a majority of the directors voted to close a meeting or any portion of a meeting.
“If CALSC deemed itself to be a public body and acted over a course of time as a public body, such conduct … is clearly relevant to a determination of whether … CALSC is a public body for the purpose of the Open Meetings Law,” he added.
Wayne maintains the CALSC board had no cause to fire
He was put on paid administrative leave in the fall of 2010 after the Office of Inspector General for the Legal Services Corp. in Washington, D.C., released a report questioning nearly $320,000 in agency spending.
CALSC, which was headquartered in Baton Rouge and served 12 parishes in southeast Louisiana, lost a $1.6 million annual federal grant to Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, which served 10 parishes at the time. SLLS now serves 22 parishes with the addition of the dozen from CALSC.