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New St. Louis recorder of deeds sued over first-day firings

Michael Butler takes the oath of office for the office of Recorder of Deeds for the City of St. Louis from The Honorable Ronnie L.White, U.S. District Judge, Eastern District of Missouri, in the rotunda of City Hall on Jan. 2, 2018.
Bill Greenblatt | UPI
Michael Butler takes the oath of office as St. Louis' recorder of deeds on Wednesday. He is being sued for allegedly firing employees who did not support him politically.

Three former employees of the St. Louis recorder of deeds office have sued after being fired by new officeholder Michael Butler.

The federal lawsuit filed Thursday claims Butler violated their constitutional rights by dismissing them for their political leanings and replacing them with people who were political supporters, not because they were qualified.

Butler defeated longtime recorder Sharon Carpenter in August and was sworn in on Wednesday.

“In less than two hours of taking office,” the lawsuit said, “Defendant Butler has abused his position as Recorder of Deeds to wrongfully terminate long-term City of St. Louis employees in favor of political campaign contributors and in retaliation against those who did not support him politically.”

Butler said in a tweet that no one should be surprised that new administrations “must evaluate all positions and functions.” He did not return a phone call seeking further comment.

Though the suit only names three employees — Georgie Simmons, Johnetta Sherrod and Robert Dillard — as many as 10 people were fired. The lawsuit also claims that Butler attempted to convince Simmons and Sherrod to sign letters accepting two weeks’ pay in exchange for agreeing not to sue. They were fired immediately when they refused.

State law creates the recorder of deeds office and gives the office holder the right to appoint “such assistants and deputies as he deems necessary for the proper discharge of the duties of his office.” Butler is within his rights to bring in his own policy people, the lawsuit said, but none of the three employees had any policy-making authority.

The lawsuit asks a judge to stop Butler from firing any more employees, and rehire the ones he fired.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.