Former town manager files discrimination suit

Posted Dec. 10, 2009, at 9:33 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:52 a.m.

STONINGTON, Maine — A former town manager has filed a discrimination suit in federal court against the town, charging that he was forced to resign his post after he asked selectmen to consider reasonable accommodations for his disability.

Former Town Manager Howard Willinghan filed the suit in U.S. District Court in October.

According to current Town Manager Kathleen Billings-Pezaris, the town has not yet been formally served notice of the suit and so has not yet responded. She declined comment on the suit. Two selectmen named in the suit, Richard Larrabee Sr. and Evelyn Duncan, also declined to comment Thursday.

The suit claims that the town’s Board of Selectmen forced Willinghan to resign after a previous back injury worsened, requiring additional treatments. Doctors also recommended that Willinghan make adjustments to his work schedule.

Willinghan began work as town manager in January 2007 and, according to the suit, had successfully completed a six-month probationary period and the Board of Selectmen had offered him an extended contract.

In September 2007, the suit noted, Willinghan was diagnosed with spinal instability, annular tear, severe degenerative disk disease and canal stenosis.

“Mr. Willinghan was told by his doctor that he faced catastrophic failure of his spine if he did not seek immediate medical attention or if adjustments were not made to his work conditions,” the suit stated.

Willinghan told then-Town Clerk Billings-Pezaris about his condition and the need for accommodations. She responded that she could provide additional backup if needed, the suit said.

Willinghan also informed Richard Larrabee Sr., chairman of the Board of Selectmen, about his condition, according to the suit, and Larrabee “reassured Mr. Willinghan that a medical problem was something the town could deal with” and made tentative plans to provide accommodations for his disability.

When Willinghan informed the rest of the selectmen at a meeting on Oct. 15, 2007, he proposed possible accommodations which included working from his home part of the time with scheduled office hours and appointments in the town office and taking an unpaid leave while undergoing a series of epidural treatments. The suit noted that there was no response from the board to his proposal.

The selectmen did appoint Billings-Pezaris as assistant town manager with discussion with Willinghan, who as town manager had sole responsibility for employee matters under the town charter, the suit claimed.

The suit also claimed that the day after that meeting Selectman Evelyn Duncan came to the town office and, within earshot of Willinghan, made a phone call to the Maine Municipal Association, during which she discussed ways to terminate Willinghan’s employment.

Willinghan again presented his request for accommodations on Oct. 22. In response, the selectmen met in executive session and then unanimously approved a motion requesting Willinghan’s resignation. The suit states that Willinghan protested the request, but aware that the selectmen were considering terminating his employ-ment, he agreed to submit his resignation.

The day after his resignation, Willinghan received a successful treatment that relieved his increased back pain and eliminated any immediate need for reasonable accommodations.

A week after he resigned, the board appointed Billings-Pezaris as town manager, the suit stated.

The suit charges that the selectmen discriminated against Willinghan because of his disability, denied him reasonable accommodations for his disabilities and retaliated and discriminated against him for requesting accommodations. In doing so, the board violated the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Maine Human Rights Act.

Willinghan is seeking back pay and benefits plus reinstatement, or, in lieu of reinstatement, future lost wages and benefits, compensatory damages, plus costs and attorney’s fees. The suit also asks that a copy of the judgment be posted at the town hall and that all officials and management or supervisory employees receive civil rights training.

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