Former jail supervisor challenges court ruling

Posted April 14, 2011, at 9:17 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Patrick Gorham, a former Androscoggin Jail supervisor, is challenging a lower court’s ruling that he didn’t act in time and lost his chance to appeal his firing.

Gorham’s lawyer on Thursday asked the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to overturn a lower court’s decision that dismissed Gorham’s appeal. Maine’s highest court made no decision Thursday. The justices eventually will issue a written decision.

Gorham was a jail supervisor in 2009 when he was fired for on-the-job pranks that included duct-taping a co-worker to a chair and putting another worker in a chokehold.

Videos from the jail security cameras recorded the incidents, which were shown to the Androscoggin County commissioners, who voted 2-1 to fire Gorham. In one video, a corrections officer was duct-taped to a chair, his arms bound and his head wrapped in tape. The chair was wheeled into an elevator where he was sent to another floor.

In the other prank, Gorham put another officer in a chokehold. That officer later reported feeling disoriented and nauseated. Sheriff Guy Desjardins told the commissioners Gorham’s behavior was “something I’ve never experienced or seen in my law enforcement career. … It turned my stomach.”

Gorham tried to appeal his firing to a lower court, but that court dismissed the request, ruling that the appeal was not filed in time. Gorham was fired by the commissioners’ vote on Nov. 4, and was required to file his appeal within 30 days of learning of his termination, the court ruled. He filed his appeal Dec. 18.

But Gorham’s lawyer, Shawn Sullivan, told the high court Thursday that Gorham should have had 30 days from the date of the commission’s written decision, recorded on Nov. 18, to file his appeal.

Sullivan told the judges he was not present when the commissioners voted to fire his client. Without the written findings, “I did not know their rationale. I did not know the findings.”

Justice Don Alexander interrupted. “[Shouldn't] this guy have been gotten out of there as fast as possible? This is a guy who’s supposed to be guarding a jail, a supervisor. He put one fellow employee in a chokehold and made him pass out. Then he duct-taped someone, tied him up and stuck him in an elevator and left him there.”

Alexander asked how the county could keep an employee like that “without opening themselves up to all kinds of lawsuits from other people. What is this?”

Sullivan answered that “worse things have happened” in the Androscoggin County Jail “and people have not gotten terminated.”

Alexander said, “We ought to look at how they run this jail if they have these kind of people running it.”

But the issue in front of the court Thursday was not whether Gorham should have been fired, but whether he should be allowed to appeal his firing.

Sullivan and David Webbert, who represented the Maine State Employees Association, argued that Gorham did not get his due process, that the 30-day clock started when the commissioners issued their written findings.

Representing the county, lawyer Bryan Dench argued that the 30-day clock began when the commissioners fired Gorham on Nov. 4.

“Mr. Gorham was present through the entire proceeding and the deliberations,” Dench said. “He knew perfectly why the commissioners voted to sustain the dismissal.”

Chief Justice Leigh Saufley asked Dench about the written findings.

“Why shouldn’t we, as a court overseeing process, say to everyone: ‘The point at which everything begins to run is when you have those written findings in your hand. Doesn’t that eliminate questions … Shouldn’t we pick the point at which everyone can know what has occurred as the point of which the appeal period begins to run?”

Dench answered that if the court was talking about changing rules, “then maybe you should. My argument is you have 30 days from notice of the action. He had notice of the action when it was taken.”

Saufley asked whether Gorham’s termination took effect on the day of the commissioners’ vote or the day of the written decision.

“Clearly on the day of the vote,” Dench said. “When the vote was taken, the action was taken and the 30-day period began to run.”

In questioning  Webbert, of the MSEA, Saufley asked whether the commissioners could have changed the vote when they wrote their findings.

“I would hope so,” Webbert said.

See more news from the Sun Journal at http://www.sunjournal.com/.

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