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Court rejects ex-CDA chief’s request

YOUNGSTOWN — It took eight months, but Taron Cunningham, the fired Youngstown Community Development Agency director, has been dealt another court setback in his quest for returning to the job with back pay.

The 7th District Court of Appeals rejected a request from Cunningham, who was fired two years ago, to reconsider its decision to dismiss his appeal. The request to reconsider was made June 25.

In a 3-0 decision, the court wrote Cunningham’s attorney “argues consideration was not given to the ‘true nature’ of the lower court’s decision and engages in intellectual gymnastics over and around the lower court’s express determination that the matter was not yet ripe for damages. In other words, appellant has not yet set forth any error in our dismissal entry.”

S. David Worhatch, Cunningham’s attorney, “simply disagrees with our decision,” the court wrote in rejecting the reconsideration request.

The court ruled June 22 not to hear Cunningham’s appeal, saying he had the option to have the city’s civil service commission rule on his case and under the Ohio Constitution “this court’s appellate jurisdiction is limited to the review of final orders of lower courts.”

Worhatch said: “We’re disappointed with the decision. My client and I will confer to decide what we’ll do next. We could seek (Ohio) Supreme Court review or return to the Youngstown Civil Service Commission and appeal it that way.”

City Law Director Jeff Limbian said: “We’re pleased with the court’s decision. As the court said: Taron and his attorney have been engaging in intellectual gymnastics, as we’ve contended for some time. This should proceed to the civil service commission on the merits. This is a validation of what we’ve said for some time and we hope Mr. Cunningham will go on his way to other pastures.”

Jeffrey Moliterno, senior assistant law director, said the civil service commission “will have a full hearing on this.” He didn’t know when that hearing would take place.

Mayor Jamael Tito Brown fired Cunningham from the job that paid $74,997.52 annually on March 8, 2019.

T. Sharon Woodberry, then the director of the city’s Community Planning and Economic Development Department and Cunningham’s supervisor, wrote Limbian on Jan. 8, 2019, outlining 26 issues with the CDA director and seeking an opinion on his firing.

Woodberry’s letter read, in part, Cunningham’s “inability to adhere to policy and rules that govern the workplace, incompetence, poor communication skills, misrepresentation of facts in his course of work, general insubordination, temperamental and retaliatory behavior, and failure to sufficiently provide guidance to employees directly under his supervision are problematic for this department.”

After a Jan. 16, 2019, hearing, Limbian recommended to Brown that Cunningham be fired.

Brown then fired Cunningham in a two-paragraph letter on March 8, 2019, that didn’t state the reasons for his decision.

Cunningham appealed the initial firing to the commission, which upheld the mayor’s decision after a May 9, 2019, hearing, and again on July 1, 2019. It issued a final order on July 22, 2019.

Cunningham filed a lawsuit appealing the decision.

On Feb. 26, 2020, Mahoning County Common Pleas Court Judge Anthony D’Apolito ruled the commission “clearly failed to determine whether the notice of removal was in compliance” with its rule that “requires the removal order to include the reasons for termination.”

D’Apolito ordered the commission vacate its decision and have another hearing, but he declined to rule on Cunningham’s request for back pay.

Brown wrote a new letter March 12, 2020, to Cunningham firing him, retroactive to March 8, 2019, with the details from Woodberry’s initial letter.

Cunningham filed with the court of appeals March 27, 2020, which stopped the civil service commission from having another hearing. The court ruled June 22 not to hear Cunningham’s appeal, with Worhatch asking three days later for reconsideration.

It took eight months, but the court acted on that request by rejecting it.

dskolnick@tribtoday.com

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