Appeal likely in whistle-blower case

Posted March 02, 2010, at 7:58 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 12:04 p.m.

MILLINOCKET, Maine — The town is poised to appeal whistle-blower Mary Walsh’s court case — which it has lost twice already — with the state’s top court if both sides can’t settle it, Town Manager Eugene Conlogue says.

“The insurance carrier has given our attorney, Melissa Hewey, the approval to appeal the Walsh case to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court unless a reasonable settlement can be reached between the parties, which seems unlikely given previous negotiations,” Conlogue said in an e-mail dated Monday.

“It will likely be appealed,” he added, cautioning town officials to offer no comment on the matter because it will be in court again.

A civil court jury on Aug. 20 affirmed for the second time in 11 months that former Town Councilor Matthew Polstein and the town violated the state’s Whistleblower Protection Act by firing Walsh from her job as town recreation department director in 2005.

The jury awarded Walsh $30,000 in damages, with state law capping awards on lawsuits against municipalities of Millinocket’s size at $50,000.

Jurors found that Polstein cast a tie-breaking council vote — effectively cutting Walsh’s job in order to create a tri-town recreation department — because her complaints about dangerous conditions on trails maintained by his businesses threatened state and town trail-grooming subsidies crucial to his finances.

Polstein owns lodging, a restaurant and a snowmobile rental business — Twin Pines Camps, River Drivers restaurant and New England Outdoors Center — all just outside Millinocket. He and town officials have maintained that the consolidation was an attempt to improve efficiency and had nothing to do with Walsh.

Conlogue declined to comment further on the matter Tuesday. Hewey’s assistant at the Drummond Woodsum law firm in Portland said she was on vacation this week.

Walsh’s attorney, A.J. Greif, was somewhat puzzled at the town insurer’s approach to negotiating a settlement, which the town can do to forestall an appeal. He said the town’s insurance adjuster has consistently offered a $125,000 settlement despite the two wins.

Besides the $30,000 in damages, a Superior Court judge ruled on Feb. 20 that Walsh deserved $61,232 in back pay for lost wages, plus interest, which Greif figures will add $32,000 to the tally. Greif said he expects to get as much as $70,000 in attorney’s fees.

“I am not accustomed to settling cases worth $185,000 for roughly two-thirds of that amount,” Greif said Tuesday. “I think this insurer thinks it’s six strikes before you are out. It’s always been three in every ballgame I have ever played in.”

Greif cut $5,000 from his estimate, and the adjuster did not accept, he said.

“I think it speaks of rockheadedness on the part of the insurer, and he may be playing with the town’s money because I don’t know that the town’s insurance policy will cover all of the award,” Greif said. “Mary is a nice person, but she is also a patient person. We have waited this long for justice. We can wait longer.”

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