Sunday, March 19, 2017

Sonoma Whistleblower Wins Lawsuit

Former Sonoma State University employee Thomas Sargent won a whistleblower retaliation lawsuit last week against the CSU and his former manager, Craig Dawson. Sargent, who worked as an Environmental Health & Safety Specialist, was awarded $387,895 in lost compensation and other damages.

Sargent reported campus mishandling of hazardous materials to state and local agencies. The university was cited and fined.

Sargent, a certified Asbestos Consultant, identified asbestos-containing dust in work spaces in Stevenson Hall in places where it would predictably be disturbed, as well as ongoing risks for the release of asbestos-containing material into the air. He was reprimanded after making a report to Cal/OSHA, and later suspended. High levels of asbestos were found in air shafts in the same building. (Stevenson is an older, 3-story building used for classrooms and offices.)

In an earlier incident, Sargent found lead-containing material on the roof the Physical Education building. Dawson disregarded Sargent's recommendation for its safe removal and instead had it scattered with a leaf-blower. After Sargent reported the incident to authorities, he received his first negative performance evaluation.

Sargent finally resigned under duress in July 2015, after serving the campus for 24 years. The Press-Democrat reports him saying he remains a supportive university alumnus and appreciates improvements made under the new campus president, Judy Sakaki, who assumed the post last July, succeeding Ruben Armiñana.

The lawsuit may help other employees as well. From the Press-Democrat:

But the complex case has much broader repercussions under a section of California Labor Code that allows aggrieved employees to recover civil damages on behalf of themselves, their co-workers and state occupational safety enforcement agencies.

A total of 231 staff and faculty assigned to Stevenson Hall, the building at the center of the case, stand to recover still-undetermined damages as a result of Sargent's case, at the discretion of Superior Court Judge Nancy Case Shaffer.

[…]

Sargent's lawyers said a preliminary calculation based on the verdict suggested as much as $2.5 million could be awarded, with 75 percent going to the state for work-place enforcement and training activities and the remainder being distributed among designated Stevenson Hall staffers.

The CSU, of course, disagrees with the verdict. Dawson continues as director of Environmental Health and Safety at Sonoma State.

Sonoma's CFA (California Faculty Association) chapter filed a grievance on behalf of faculty working in Stevenson, and hired a retired Cal/OHSA employee as a consultant.

The next hearing for the lawsuit is scheduled for May 26.

Note: This suit was originally filed in 2014 by VaLinda Kyrias, a former chief steward from Sonoma's CSUEU Chapter 304 who was admitted to the state bar in 2010.

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