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Former constables sue sheriff alleging protected speech violation

Two former constables recently filed a federal lawsuit alleging their former supervisor, Lycoming County Sheriff Mark Lusk, violated their constitutional right to free speech.

Two other cases are in the county court. They include a declaratory judgment pending from a judge that may set case law for constables.

A hearing on the cases in county court is scheduled Monday to add $600,000 in damages to the claim.

Chad Riley and Mark Phillips filed a First Amendment retaliation allegation in late June against Lusk in U.S. Middle District Court.

Riley’s attorney, Mary Kilgus, filed opposition of the defendant’s motion to dismiss the case.

Lusk was not in his office when a spokeswoman was reached by telephone Wednesday for comment.

Riley and Phillips allege Lusk terminated their employment for protected speech.

The incident began from a federal perspective as Riley ran for county sheriff in January 2017, court papers said.

Phillips, and several other constables, helped Riley in his campaign by getting signatures, mailing brochures and other activities.

When Lusk prevailed in the primary election, the sheriff’s office said “their services were no longer needed,” according to court papers.

During the campaign, Lusk allegedly harassed Riley by using his capacity as sheriff to try to intimidate, including by getting the Lycoming County Republican Party to file a private criminal complaint with the district attorney against Riley for election violations, papers said.

District Judge Christian Frey continued to give Riley and Phillips work, but told Riley that he was being continually harassed by the sheriff’s office not to use them, papers said.

Riley and Phillips claim that political speech is protected under the First Amendment and that firing them was retaliation.

Protected speech was the substantial and motivating factor behind the defendant’s choice to terminate the services of the constables, court documents said.

The constables also filed a claim of defamation of character which was done during discovery in the declaratory judgment lawsuit.

They allege Lusk has prevented them from getting work.

In all, they are seeking $2.2 million in lost wages and damages.

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