Millinocket whistle-blower case heads for state’s top court

Posted Aug. 06, 2010, at 3:37 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 11:29 a.m.

MILLINOCKET, Maine — The Maine Supreme Judicial Court will hear the town’s third appeal of former Recreation Department Director Mary Walsh’s successful whistle-blower lawsuit against the town, for which two civil court juries voted to award her almost $192,000 in damages and court costs.

Filed late last month, the two-page appeal was no surprise. Town officials and Melissa Hewey, an attorney from the Drummond Woodsum law firm in Portland who represents the town, had been saying they would appeal since Town Manager Eugene Conlogue announced in March that the town’s insurance carrier would assent to the attempt.

And Conlogue chafed at calling the case the town’s third appeal of the Walsh verdict.

“This is the first appeal to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court,” Conlogue said earlier this week. “We believe that there are legal issues that haven’t been considered in the past that are appropriate to the case. That’s about all I can tell you.”

Walsh’s attorney, A.J. Greif of Bangor, said Friday that he welcomed the town’s appeal.

In his cross-appeal filed in response to the town’s latest effort, Greif said he will seek full reinstatement to her old job for Walsh and front-pay that she would receive until the town’s present recreation department contract with East Millinocket expires.

“At every step of the way — refusing to settle before the first trial, insisting on a second trial, refusing to settle before the second trial, losing more money after a second trial, and refusing to settle after the second trial — the town’s insurer has seen its exposure grow. In a strange way, the insurer appears to be looking out for Mary and her attorneys, all the while paying fees to Ms. Hewey,” Greif said in an e-mail.

Hewey did not return telephone messages left on Monday and Friday.

A civil court jury on Aug. 20, 2009, 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 single recreation department for the three Katahdin region towns — 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.

Polstein and town officials have maintained that the consolidation of recreation departments was an attempt to improve efficiency and had nothing to do with Walsh. Polstein opted not to seek re-election in the fall of 2008.

Greif placed the judgment’s value at $91,232 in the verdict and back pay award; $25,368 in pre-judgment interest; $71,864 in attorney’s fees; $791.23 in attorney’s expenses; and $2,634 in court costs. He estimated that the case’s cost would increase to about $250,000.

The town’s insurer would directly pay for adverse verdicts. Town officials have said they do not know what impact that would have on the town’s insurance rates.

No supreme court hearing date has been set.

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