Phillip Westry, a public interest lawyer, was fired from the Maryland Center for Legal Assistance because he was running for Baltimore City Council.
Westry, who is challenging 12th District Councilman Robert Stokes in the April 28 Democratic primary, says he can’t be fired for seeking political office.
Backed by his union, he’s in contract arbitration with Maryland Legal Aid, of which MCLA is a wholly-owned subsidiary.
Maryland Legal Aid said his campaign could conflict with his work as a public interest attorney, according to documents Westry provided to The Brew.
His former employer won’t say why Westry was terminated. “Phillip Westry no longer works here,” Phillip Stillman, head of human resources, said in a phone conversation.
Stillman said Westry was hired in August 2017 and was fired on April 29, 2019. He declined to explain Maryland Legal Aid’s policy on employees running for office.
Westry said his union attorney expects the arbiter to reach a decision before Christmas.
“Their logic was something so crazy,” Westry said. “They really tried to bully me.”
Meanwhile, Westry is continuing to knock on doors in the 12th, a district covering central and east Baltimore, where he faces Gary Crum and Dave Heilker in addition to Stokes in the Democratic primary.
Ban on Political Activity
Documents that Westry made available to The Brew give a picture of an increasingly contentious back-and-forth with his employer.
“I have no plans to make use of any company resources in furtherance of my campaign. I simply wish to advocate for my district and neighborhood using the democratic process,” Westry wrote in an April 11 email to MCLA Managing Director Chijoke Akamigbo.
He told his employers he has “a great affinity for the mission of Maryland Center for Legal Assistance and in no way want to jeopardize the important work done by the organization.”
Two weeks later, the organization threatened him with termination unless he dropped his campaign within “three business days.”
Westry said he announced his candidacy at an October 2018 house party and recalled that his office manager was there.
He also discussed the campaign at a February staff meeting, although “it was not heard or acknowledged by management,” wrote Gustava Taler, MLA’s chief operating officer, in a June letter to Westry.
“Those conflicts, real or perceived, could negatively impact MLA’s and MCLA’s operations and services to clients and others,” Taler wrote.
“It is imperative that MLA and its subsidiaries remain politically neutral and removed from any partisan political activity,” Legal Aid told Westry.
“In addition, the conflicts could jeopardize MLA’s funding,” Taler continued. “As the largest provider of civil legal services to Maryland’s poor, it is imperative that MLA and its subsidiaries remain politically neutral and removed from any partisan political activity.”
Taler wrote that Maryland Legal Aid is subject to the regulations of its funder, the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), including a prohibition on attorneys engaging in political activity.
“While MCLA is a separate entity for purposes of LSC restrictions,” she wrote, “MLA holds MCLA employees to the same standards as it does MLA employees.”
Westry met with management at the nonprofit law firm on April 17, and on April 25 was given the drop-the-campaign-or-be-fired ultimatum.
He argues MCLA does not have just cause to fire him because his collective bargaining agreement does not mention any prohibition against running for office.
“If it’s in the book and I missed it, then that’s on me,” he said. “But it’s not in the book.”
Active Union Member
Westry said he would not promote his campaign at work, knowing it would certainly backfire. If he tried to do so, he said, word would spread quickly among clients and judges, and he would lose credibility as a lawyer.
Westry said management worried he would give bad advice to landlords, something so obviously inappropriate that he would never try it .
“How would that work?” Westry asked. “They would go downstairs to the judge and say, ‘The lawyer upstairs told me this.’”
Still Westry, said, he tried to be responsive to Maryland Legal Aid’s concerns. His husband’s schedule meant Westry couldn’t use their car, and he initially declined his employer’s proposal to transfer him to MLA offices in Annapolis or Salisbury.
Over 110 miles from Baltimore, Salisbury was a non-starter, and Annapolis was too inconvenient by bus. Westry said he offered to work at the Catonsville office, and when his husband’s schedule changed and he was able to share the car, he offered to work in Annapolis. MLA did not accept his offer.
An elected representative and active member of his workplace union, National Organization of Legal Services Workers (NOLSW), Westry turned to the group for help. Union delegate Louise Carwell wrote a letter to Taler on May 6 in his defense.
“By rejecting any form of compromise and using conflict of interest as a basis for transfer and loss of employment,” Carwell wrote, “management’s termination of Mr. Westry was unjust and therefore in violation of Article 10 of the Collective Bargaining Agreement.”
Westry also received union endorsements, including UFCW Local 27 and AFL-CIO Baltimore Metro Council.
“We are the only campaign to receive this endorsement over an incumbent,” he recently said on Twitter, referring to the nod from the AFL-CIO .
“I love my job”
Westry said he wants to keep working at the Maryland Center for Legal Assistance.
He connected his experience there to the wider labor struggle, and said he was grateful for his union’s support.
“I love this work. I love my job,” Westry wrote in an April 25 letter to management. “I love Baltimore City. I sincerely enjoy my work at MCLA.”
Despite the dispute, Westry said his campaign is going very well. He said he raised over $20,000 between his October 2018 announcement and his April firing.
Since being fired, he has worked part-time through the Appointed Attorneys Program. He decided not to take the settlement that MLA offered him, explaining, “I should do the thing I would want my client to do.”