A Philadelphia workers’ compensation judge fired last year after a politically connected law firm repeatedly complained about her rulings to senior state officials in Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration has won her job back.
Andrea McCormick should be reinstated within 30 days with full back pay, the State Civil Service Commission ordered on Thursday.
McCormick’s October 2018 termination, detailed by The Inquirer in April, followed back-channel complaints lodged with Wolf’s secretary of labor and industry and other top state officials by the Center City-based firm Pond Lehocky Stern Giordano.
In its ruling, the Civil Service Commission concluded that Labor and Industry officials had not presented sufficient evidence to “support any of its charges, either individually or collectively,” against McCormick. Those included claims that her bias against the firm stemmed in part from a romantic relationship with a lawyer who was a critic of Pond Lehocky.
There was no proof that the relationship “affected her ability to perform her duties impartially or diligently, nor is there any evidence of impropriety,” the commission wrote.
McCormick did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday, nor did state officials involved in the case.
An administrative judge since 2006, McCormick is among a roster of judges who rule on disputes between workers who are injured on the job and employers and insurance firms contesting their claims for medical expenses and lost wages.
Pond Lehocky is the largest workers’ comp firm in the state; it has been a major contributor to Wolf and other Democrats in Pennsylvania. Over the years, its leaders came to believe that McCormick showed bias against them in cases before her.
Partners at the firm began emailing details about her rulings to officials in Labor and Industry, which runs the workers’ comp court system.
“Mike, here is another loss in front of McCormick,” Sam Pond, the firm’s managing partner, told Michael Vovakes, deputy secretary of labor and industry, in a dictated email sent by Pond’s secretary in June 2017.
Around June 2018, Pond Lehocky informed Labor and Industry Secretary W. Gerard Oleksiak that McCormick was dating a workers’-comp defense lawyer who was an outspoken critic of Pond Lehocky. Oleksiak passed it on to a subordinate.
Oleksiak "said he got it from Pond Lehocky,” Executive Deputy Secretary Robert O’Brien said during February testimony before the Civil Service Commission.
State officials responded by sifting through McCormick’s inbox — about 6,000 emails dating to 2010 — and ultimately terminated her for a slew of alleged offenses, ranging from sharing nonpublic information to making online purchases and exchanging personal photos.
McCormick’s firing raised concerns within the legal community, including among some judges, that law firms could use their political clout to influence the courts behind closed doors. A former Pennsylvania Bar Association official likened such tactics to “using a sledgehammer to kill a mosquito.”
Prior to the Civil Service ruling, a state review of more than 100 McCormick decisions involving Pond Lehocky found that she had acted impartially. Her rulings were split evenly between injured workers represented by Pond Lehocky and the workers’ employers, the commission wrote.
The Civil Service Commission also dismissed the allegation that McCormick violated the state’s workplace violence policy when, the commission found, she had simply been “stern” with an attorney who was five months late in filing a brief.
“This is not workplace violence,” the commission wrote in its ruling.
Sam Pond said in a statement Friday that the firm had reported the concerns to McCormick’s superiors because there is no judicial review body for workers’ compensation judges.
“We simply asked that someone investigate the matter of impartiality. That was our ethical obligation and responsibility to the system and our clients,” Pond said. "The number-one priority for us was and always will be our clients. We will continue to stand up for them and make sure they have equal and fair access to justice.”