Ex-Togus worker won’t receive damages in discrimination suit

Posted Dec. 03, 2010, at 12:17 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — A Michigan man who once worked at the Togus VA Medical Center in Augusta will not receive damages after a jury Thursday issued a split verdict in his discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

After deliberating for 5¼ hours, jurors found that a VA facility in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula had denied Mark Stephen Palmquist, 44, of Menominee, Mich., affirmative action for disabled veterans when his former supervisor gave him an unfavorable reference in March 2006.

On Thursday, the jury also found that the bad reference was in retaliation for Palmquist’s complaints that he had been denied legally required promotion opportunities for disabled veterans. But jurors also decided that retaliation was not his former supervisor’s motive for writing the negative recommendation and that Palmquist would have been denied the promotion he had applied for in Tennessee anyway.

U.S. District Judge John Woodcock entered judgment for the VA after the jury’s verdict was announced.

Before moving to Maine four years ago, Palmquist worked for more than two years at the VA Medical Center in Iron Mountain, Mich., on the Wisconsin border. It was his treatment at that facility, Palmquist claimed, that violated employment discrimination law in his discrimination lawsuit filed in July 2007 in federal court in Bangor.

“From Mark’s point of view, this was more about standing up for rights of disabled veterans than anything else,” Palmquist’s attorney, David Webbert of Augusta, said Friday. “That’s his calling. So Mark and I are very gratified that the jury found that the VA retaliated against him for exercising his free speech rights. Judge Woodcock also said on the record that [the VA’s] interpretation of the law was wrong and it did not apply just to hiring, but it also applied to promotion.”

Webbert said that even though he was not awarded damages, Palmquist was pleased with the outcome of the trial.

“It was a difficult and complicated case,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Halsey Frank, who defended the VA, said in an e-mail. “The defense was fortunate to get a favorable verdict. The VA and I am grateful for the jury’s service.”

In Maine, Palmquist worked as a patient representative at Togus Veterans Affairs Medical Center from November 2006 to March 2010. The trial was moved from Bangor to Portland because of pretrial publicity over separate criminal charges pending against Palmquist.

He pleaded not guilty on Oct. 6 by video in federal court in Bangor to making a false and fraudulent statement, theft of government property, fraudulent receipt of VA services and 21 counts of wire fraud. Palmquist remains free on personal recognizance bail but is no longer working, according to court documents.

The investigation that led to the criminal charges did not begin until after Palmquist filed his civil lawsuit against the VA, according to Webbert.

The bulk of the charges stemmed from disability payments Palmquist received for injuries he suffered in a 1989 helicopter crash in Panama while serving in the U.S. Marine Corps. Palmquist suffered injuries to his back and brain that qualified him to receive disability benefits, according to court documents.

The amount of the monthly check an individual receives in disability benefits is based on the number of dependents being supported, according to court documents. Palmquist applied for dependent benefits in June 2002 when he married and was supporting a stepchild, according to the documents. He divorced the woman a year later but allegedly did not inform the proper authorities so his benefits could be reduced to what they had been when he was single.

The wire fraud charges stem from the fact that his benefit check was automatically deposited into a credit union account in Portland between Dec. 1, 2006, and May 30, 2008.

The total amount of money Palmquist allegedly received fraudulently was not listed in court documents.

If convicted, Palmquist faces up 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 on the wire fraud charges, which are the most serious. He also could be ordered to pay restitution.

His trial on the criminal charges is tentatively set for Jan. 4 in Bangor.

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