Court bypasses departure-policy argument, but: Attorney Knoppel wins case against justice ministry

POSTED: 01/25/15 9:16 PM

St. Maarten – The Ministry of Justice had no reason to fire attorney Ellen Knoppel in 2014, the Court in First Instance ruled yesterday. On Friday the court ruled in summary proceedings that the previous Minister of Justice, Roland Duncan, had granted the attorney a permanent labor contract under the so-called departure policy, which made the contract invalid. In the regular lawsuit, the court ruled the other way, establishing that the ministry had no valid reason to fire Knoppel.

The court gave the attorney the opportunity to further specify her claim for damages – consisting of lost income for the period the ministry did not allow her to work. In summary procedures, Knoppel claimed 20,000 guilders in damages.

Knoppel gave up her law practice in October 2011 when she entered into a one-year contract with the justice ministry. In October 2012, the ministry extended the contract for another year and on May 10, 2013, eight days before Minister Duncan left office, the contract was made permanent. The ministry also added Knoppel to its Staff Bureau.

On May 22, 2013 – therefore four days after he left office – Duncan wrote an advice stating that the ministry had a shortage of know-how and experience with local legislation and that Knoppel had made a significant contribution to the process of updating legislation and other legal matters since she joined the cabinet in 2011. “It is essential that het know-how is preserved for the progress of matters.”

All this changed when Dennis Richardson succeeded Duncan as the minister of justice. Immediately there was a court case about salary payments for the months of June and July – Knoppel won.

A year later, on June 30, 2014, the senior human resources employee at the ministry sent Knoppel her dismissal letter – effective per August 1 of that year. The reason given was a reorganization of the department that included the outsourcing of the legal services Knoppel was providing. The attorney objected to her dismissal, but the ministry stuck to its guns.

The court ruled that the ministry had not contradicted – at least not sufficiently motivated – that the working relationship between Knoppel and Minister Richardson had been cumbersome from the moment the minister took office. The ministry did not counter charges either that the communication between Knoppel and her minister had been inadequate.

The court furthermore noticed in its ruling that it has remained unclear that the quick scan conducted by KPMG-consultants resulted in an actual reorganization. “It would have made sense to consider whether the plaintiff could have been placed at the understaffed department for Legal Affairs.”

The court concludes that the reason for Knoppel’s dismissal “appears to be feigned” and that the dismissal is insufficiently motivated. “Therefore the dismissal has to be considered unreasonable.”

While Knoppel initially demanded to get her job back, she indicated during the court hearing in September of last year that a return under the current minister is not realistic. Knoppel retained the services of Rik Bergman and Christaan de Jong of the law office of Bergman Zwanikken Snow Essed to fight her case.

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