Somerset County Courthouse

Somerset County Courthouse is shown on Monday, May 14, 2018.

A former Somerset County worker, who was at one point accused of disorderly conduct, is suing the county, saying his Constitutional rights were violated in 2019 when he was "unlawfully" fired due to a public debate over hiring practices with President Commissioner Gerald Walker.

Somerset County officials indicated Thursday they will fight the lawsuit in court.

Former maintenance employee Eric Trent's termination generated headlines during the 2019 election year after he approached Walker's campaign booth at the Somerset Builders Association's annual "Megashow" expo that spring.

Trent, a Lincoln Township supervisor, told The Tribune-Democrat at the time that he was upset about "taxpayers' issues" and acknowledged the exchange "got loud" over the county's recent trend of hiring out-of-state people for high-level jobs, rather than local residents seeking to advance their careers.

In a lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court for Western District of Pennsylvania, the Lincoln Township man's attorneys maintain Trent was fired because of the incident, despite no previous job issues, after expressing "strong disagreement" and telling Walker he would work to have him removed from office.

The lawsuit adds that Trent was also "humiliated" three days after the altercation by being publicly removed from the courthouse.

State police cited Trent with a summary count of disorderly conduct.

But in June of that year, Trent was found "not guilty" by a judge after the investigating state trooper's witnesses did not show up for the hearing.

Somerset County, Walker and then-commissioner Pat Terlingo were all named in the suit.

In an interview Thursday, Walker said he could not respond to the suit as a "legal matter" and referred comment to county Solicitor Michael Barbera.

Barbera noted that a third-party review last year supported county officials' actions regarding the March 2019 incident.

A grievance arbitrator who listened to both sides' arguments agreed with the county, he said.

Barbera said the county had not yet received a copy of the court notice and could not comment on specifics' regarding Trent's new lawsuit, adding that it was also likely the county would appoint special labor counsel to handle the case.

Pittsburgh-area Attorney Ernest Orsatti and Harrisburg-based workers compensation lawyers Ira Weinstock and Jeffrey Schott, whose firms both specialize in labor and employment cases, are representing Trent.

They wrote that Trent's first and 14th amendment rights were violated because, as an American citizen, he had a right to express his opinion about county hiring practices.

Trent wants his old job back, lost income restored and compensation for legal fees, pain and suffering, including "emotional duress," the attorneys wrote.

Trent's lawsuit requests a jury trial, but federal court documents show the case is being being handled within the Western District's Alternative Dispute Resolution civil program, which can involve options such as mediation or settlement conferences.

David Hurst is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5053. Follow him on Twitter @TDDavidHurst and Instagram @TDDavidHurst.

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