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Commonwealth Court orders Philly judge reinstated after clash with major law firm

The ruling could end a lengthy behind-the-scenes power struggle that had raised concerns in the legal community about the vulnerability of administrative judges.

Workers' Compensation Judge Andrea McCormick, left, and Sam Pond. After law firm Pond Lehocky complained to state officals about her rulings, McCormick was fired in 2018. A Commonwealth Court decision on Thursday ordered she be reinstated.
Workers' Compensation Judge Andrea McCormick, left, and Sam Pond. After law firm Pond Lehocky complained to state officals about her rulings, McCormick was fired in 2018. A Commonwealth Court decision on Thursday ordered she be reinstated.Read moreHandout / Philadelphia Bar Association (custom credit)

Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court has ruled that a Philadelphia workers’ compensation judge should get her job back — likely ending a lengthy, behind-the-scenes power struggle that had raised concerns within the local legal community about the potential vulnerability of judges who cross politically connected law firms.

The decision, released Thursday, said Andrea McCormick’s October 2018 termination should be expunged and she should be returned to her post.

McCormick, an administrative judge since 2006 who ruled on disputes involving injured workers, was fired after Center City-based Pond Lehocky lodged back-channel complaints about her with senior officials in Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration.

» READ MORE: A judge angered one of Pennsylvania’s most politically connected law firms, then quickly lost her job

Pond Lehocky, a large workers’ comp law firm and a major player in Democratic politics, had complained that McCormick was ruling against its clients too often and had a romantic relationship with a lawyer who was a critic of the firm.

“Mike, here is another loss in front of McCormick,” Sam Pond, the firm’s managing partner, told Michael Vovakes, deputy secretary of the state Department of Labor and Industry, in a dictated email sent by Pond’s secretary in June 2017.

The heavy-handed tactics, reported by The Inquirer in April 2019, had alarmed some judges about how much unseen influence powerful law firms could exert, with a former Pennsylvania Bar Association official likening it to “using a sledgehammer to kill a mosquito.”

Pond Lehocky’s complaints about McCormick — including at least one made directly to Wolf’s secretary of labor and industry — prompted state officials in 2017 to look at more than 100 of her cases involving the firm. The review said she had acted impartially. Then in 2018, as complaints from the law firm continued, department investigators sifted through about 6,000 of her work emails dating to 2010. The department then fired her for a mélange of alleged offenses, ranging from sharing nonpublic information to making online purchases on her work computer.

The department went so far as to accuse McCormick of violating its “workplace violence” policy because she had ordered an attorney to file a brief that was five months late even if he had to “get it done over the weekend.”

McCormick appealed her termination to the state Civil Service Commission. The commission later ruled that her firing was unjustified, finding that state Labor and Industry officials hadn’t presented sufficient evidence to “support any of its charges, either individually or collectively,” against McCormick.

“This is not workplace violence,” the Civil Service Commission wrote in its November 2019 ruling, referring to the allegation involving McCormick’s email about the attorney’s past-due brief.

Regarding McCormick’s romantic relationship with a workers’ comp attorney, the commission noted that the judge had filed official paperwork recusing herself since 2015 from hearing cases involving him or his firm. It found no proof that the relationship “affected her ability to perform her duties impartially or diligently, nor is there any evidence of impropriety.”

The state review of the 100 McCormick decisions involving Pond Lehocky found that her rulings were split evenly between injured workers represented by Pond Lehocky and the workers’ employers, the Civil Service Commission wrote.

Nonetheless, the state appealed the commission’s ruling to Commonwealth Court. The court’s ruling Thursday, signed by Commonwealth Court Judge Michael Wojcik, affirmed the commission’s decision, finding that it had “thoroughly and extensively” reviewed the evidence about McCormick.

Commonwealth Court Judge Ellen Ceisler, a former Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge, wrote a dissenting opinion, concluding that the state presented “substantial, credible evidence establishing just cause” for firing McCormick.

McCormick did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Her attorney, Elliot Strokoff, declined to comment. State officials said they are reviewing the ruling. It was unclear Thursday if they would ask Commonwealth Court to reconsider the case, or appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Sam Pond said Thursday he had not heard about the Commonwealth Court ruling. In a statement in November 2019, he had said that his firm had reported his concerns to McCormick’s superiors because there was no judicial review body for administrative judges.