NC Appeals Court rules against Central Prison staffer who claimed whistleblower retaliation | Eastern North Carolina Now

    Publisher's Note: This post appears here courtesy of the Carolina Journal. The author of this post is CJ Staff.

    A unanimous N.C. Court of Appeals panel has ruled against a Central Prison staffer who claimed her whistleblowing blocked her from a promotion. The decision affirms an earlier ruling against the staffer.

    Judith Knechtges had asked the state's second-highest court to reverse a February 2021 decision from the state Office of Administrative Hearings. Knechtges sought a new hearing on her claims of whistleblower retaliation.

    "Upon careful review of the record and the parties' briefs, we discern no abuse of discretion," wrote Judge Fred Gore in an unpublished opinion. Unpublished opinions have limited value as precedents in future cases.

    "Petitioner was the director of the Central Pharmacy at the Central Prison Healthcare Complex Facility in Raleigh ... from 2010 to 2016. In 2015, petitioner reported 'numerous anomalies' with 'the management of controlled substances,'" Gore wrote. "As a result of this report, a yearlong investigation occurred internally by the United States Drug Enforcement Agency, the North Carolina Board of Pharmacy, and the United States Attorney General's Office."

    The Department of Public Safety, the respondent in the case, "was found at fault and required to pay substantial fines," Gore added. "Additionally, the Chief Executive Officer ... position for the Central Prison Health Care Facility became vacant after the investigation."

    Knechtges became interim CEO in April 2016. "[P]etitioner uncovered multiple areas of financial mismanagement and implemented changes within her power or proposed changes to supervisors," Gore wrote. "Many of these proposals were rejected by supervisors, and petitioner felt she was 'met with resistance' with some of these recommended changes."

    DPS posted the CEO job opening three times. Knechtges applied and interviewed for the job each time. The department eventually made an external hire and returned Knechtges to her previous job.

    She first challenged the decision in February 2019. "Petitioner alleged she was denied a promotional priority due to retaliation in violation of the Whistleblower Act," according to Gore's opinion.

    Knechtges later "became unhappy" with her lawyer's work "because petitioner submitted 'numerous documents and witnesses' to her counsel, but her counsel did not utilize any of the witnesses and few of the documents."

    "It appears petitioner seeks relief from judgment and a new hearing to present evidence she believes her attorney failed to present," Gore wrote. "As previously articulated, our Courts disfavor providing relief from judgment because of error by the appellant's counsel and have explicitly stated it does not amount to excusable neglect."

    Appellate judges did not find a reason to overrule the administrative law judge in Knechtges' case.

    "Petitioner seeks what any losing party would seek, another opportunity to establish a prima facie case against the opposing party," Gore wrote. "Petitioner seeks a second opportunity to present evidence to the OAH that was available during the hearing, although her counsel did not present it. However, this desire hardly amounts to an extraordinary circumstance and essentially is a request for a 'second bite at the apple.'"

    "While this Court will not weigh in on whether petitioner's attorney was or was not negligent, we are unwilling to disturb the ALJ's discretionary decision when it is based upon reason," Gore added. "We also cannot say that justice demands relief in this case, for petitioner does not meet her burden of proving the trial court abused its discretion."

    Chief Judge Donna Stroud Judge Chris Dillon joined the decision.
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