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Journal Tribune
Updated June 26, 2019
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Appeals court rules for LePage in lawsuit by former House Speaker Mark Eves

But three of the appellate court judges wrote in a concurring opinion that LePage had violated Eves’ constitutional rights, as Eves’ had alleged in the lawsuit.

Eves was fired in 2015 shortly after being hired as president of the Good Will-Hinckley school in Fairfield after then-Gov. LePage threatened to withhold funding for the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, a public charter school for at-risk students run by Good Will-Hinckley. Eves said the governor’s actions violated his constitutional rights and he sued.

A federal judge in Maine ruled that the governor had immunity from lawsuits over funding decisions, and a three-judge panel of the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston agreed. But last year, a majority of the full appeals court took the unusual step of setting aside the panel’s ruling and holding a hearing before the entire appeals court.

The full court upheld the panel’s ruling on immunity, but three of the six judges wrote in their concurring opinion that LePage had violated Eves’ constitutional rights when the governor got him fired by threatening to block state funding for Good Will-Hinckley.

In their 49-page ruling, the judges noted that the Supreme Court has ruled that government officials are immune from damages for political affiliation discrimination – a protection known as qualified immunity – unless it can be clearly proved that an official violated federal or state laws.

LePage claimed his role as the state’s chief executive officer granted him immunity. On Wednesday, the 1st Circuit said the lower court ruling was justified.

Good Will-Hinckley is a nonprofit charitable organization located in Fairfield that serves at-risk children. It was founded in 1889 as a “farm, school, and home for needy boys.” In 2009, the school became the Center of Excellence for at-risk students and the Legislature gave the governor discretion to fund it as a charter school.

The school’s board of directors voted in May 2015 to offer Eves the president’s job. After LePage learned the school hired Eves, the governor contacted school officials to express his displeasure. LePage maintained that Eves throughout his career opposed charter schools.

Threatened with the loss of more than a $1 million in state funding, the school rescinded its offer to Eves in late June 2015.

The dispute has dragged on for four years. Wednesday’s ruling comes more than a year after the judges heard arguments from both parties.

Patrick Strawbridge, who represented LePage, said he is pleased by the 6-0 court decision. Strawbridge said his client has moved on from the controversy.

“He informs me that he is happily retired,” Strawbridge said Wednesday in a telephone interview. LePage recently landed a summer job tending bar at McSeagulls Restaurant in Boothbay Harbor.

Eves currently serves as executive director of Woodfords Family Services, a nonprofit social service agency based in Westbrook, according to his attorney, David Webbert of Augusta.

Webbert said the concurring opinion could have implications for future administrations and chief executive officers and represents a victory for his client.

“It’s not a complete victory for us,” Webbert said. “But I think the message has been sent and received.”

In that opinion, the judges said they “would have no trouble concluding that in the circumstances of this case, Eves sufficiently pled a violation of his constitutional right.”

The judges went on to say that “Eves’ complaint alleging that Governor LePage bullied Good Will-Hinckley into canning Eves because of Eves’ political affiliation adequately pleads a constitutional violation when viewed through the correct legal lens. And none of LePage’s arguments to the contrary hits home.”

“Governor LePage notes how the target of his threats wasn’t the person Good Will-Hinckley selected as its president but rather the funding recipient itself,” court documents state. “That LePage conditioned his threat on Good Will-Hinckley dumping Eves because of Eves’ party affiliation confirms he based his threat on Eves’ party affiliation.”

But despite that opinion, all six judges ruled that LePage’s qualified immunity trumped Eves’ contention that his rights had been violated.

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