Supreme Court rules that he cannot collect salary plus severance pay
justices in a 5-0 decision reversed the state Court of Appeals in the
case of James Palenick, right. The lower court decided that Palenick could
collect his salary because he initially was fired by the Rio Rancho City
Council in a session that violated the state’s open meetings law.
belatedly asked for $148,000 in addition to the severance pay he
received, claiming his firing was done at an illegal meeting and he
therefore remained on the payroll.
The Supreme Court rejected his claims.
“Because we conclude that Palenick waived his right to pursue a breach of contract claim, we need not decide whether there was in fact a violation of the Open Meetings Act,” Chief Justice Petra Jimenez Maes wrote in the decision.
Rio Rancho City Council fired Palenick as city manager in December
2006, after he had been on the job 3 1/2 years. The city then paid him
the severance package, which he initially accepted without complaint.
in September 2007, the state attorney general's staff offered an
opinion that the mayor and city council of Rio Rancho had violated the
open-meetings law when they fired Palenick. The city council voted again
in November 2007 to fire Palenick, to correct whatever wrongs had
marred the first dismissal.
then sued the city for another $148,000 in pay and benefits, alleging
violations of the open meetings law and breach of contract for unpaid
salary and benefits.
Palenick, now 54, claimed he technically was on the Rio Rancho payroll for 11 months after his firing.
But he had accepted the city manager’s job in Gastonia, N.C., in August 2007. This means Palenick contended that, for at least three months, he was on the payrolls of two cities that are 1,600 miles apart.
has not accurately represented the city’s assertions,” the Supreme
Court said. “...The city’s counterclaim does not state that Palenick is
not entitled to severance payments, but rather states that Palenick is
not entitled to collect the severance payments in addition to a salary
for the period spanning Dec. 14, 2006, through Nov. 14, 2007.”
New Mexico Foundation for Open Government supported Palenick in his
lawsuit for extra pay. FOG backed him because of his claim that he was
fired in violation of the open meetings law.