State system wants Armenti lawsuit tossed

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The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education is calling for the dismissal of a federal lawsuit filed by former California University of Pennsylvania President Angelo Armenti Jr., who claims state system officials violated his civil rights.


Motions asking federal Judge John E. Jones III to dismiss a suit brought this past fall by Armenti were filed Dec. 14 in Harrisburg on behalf of the state system and its board of governors, including members Guido Pichini, Marie Conley and Ronald Henry, as well as state Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis and state system Chancellor John Cavanaugh. About a week later, attorneys filed a motion to dismiss the claims against the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties and Dr. Michael Slavin, president of the Cal U. faculty union.


In October, Armenti, 72, filed a lawsuit accusing the state system and its leadership of violating his civil rights and conspiring to defame him in order to gather support for his firing last May. The suit alleges state system officials engaged in a campaign to discredit Armenti after he fell out of favor for criticizing policy decisions, and used an auditors’ report to create the false impression he had mismanaged the university’s finances. The suit also claims Slavin, chairman of Cal U.’s theater and dance department, defamed Armenti and intentionally interfered with his contract by circulating a “manifesto” from the faculty union regarding management issues.


According to court documents, Pittsburgh attorneys Samuel Simon and Matthew Lautman argue that the state system is immune from the suit under the 11th Amendment because it is a state agency, further contending that this protection extends to state system employees and officials. The documents also state that Armenti, who is being represented by former Washington County district attorney Steve Toprani, cannot claim his firing was in violation of the 14th Amendment’s civil rights provisions because he was an at-will employee and could be fired with or without cause.


The defense further argues Armenti failed to show concrete facts of wrongdoing in regard to his claim that the state system violated the Pennsylvania Whistleblower Law by firing him less than two months after he filed a formal complaint against the chancellor. According to Armenti, Cavanaugh had conspired with state system employees and newspaper reporters to damage his reputation and set up his dismissal.


Attorneys for Slavin and APSCUF subsequently filed a brief Dec. 20 to support their motion to dismiss the suit. They say it’s ironic that Armenti claims the state system and its officials violated his free-speech rights while Armenti, himself, assails the union for exercising those same rights.


The attorneys for the state system argue that Armenti’s speech is not protected by the 1st Amendment since he was making statements in accordance with his official duties as a public employee.


“The hubris of such a deed embodies the management style employed by Mr. Armenti during his tenure as president at Cal U. and the reason why Mr. Slavin and APSCUF were justified in publishing their letter to the PASSHE board of governors and the Cal U. (council) of trustees,” the document states.


Reached by email Friday, Armenti declined to discuss the recent court filings, stating, “Because this matter is now in the courts, I will have no comment on the various legal proceedings at this time.”


State system spokesman Kenn Marshall also declined to comment.


Known to battle with state system officials through letters and email messages in the months after his firing, Armenti recently started a blog to share his thoughts on the future of higher education and said he is working on a couple of books, which he hopes to see published before the end of the year.


Armenti was the longest-tenured president in the state system when he was fired May 16 after spending two decades at the helm of Cal U.


The day after his firing, the state system released a report based on a special investigative audit of Cal U.’s finances claiming the school may have violated state law by using university employees to raise money for its private foundation – an organization that also allegedly received millions from improperly diverted housing profits. The report also criticized the school for raising far less money than initially promised toward the sprawling 6,000-seat Convocation Center, which carried a $59 million price tag after cost overruns.


In addition to the federal lawsuit, Armenti filed a Commonwealth Court suit in August claiming the state system and its board of governors violated the Sunshine Act in the handling of his firing.


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