SANGERVILLE, Maine — Sangerville residents voted 27-22 Thursday to spend up to $30,000 from surplus to fight a civil lawsuit filed by resident Frank Ruksznis, the town’s former plumbing inspector, against former Selectman Lance Burgess.
In his lawsuit filed on Sept. 23 in U.S. District Court in Bangor, Ruksznis alleges he was fired illegally from his inspector’s job in April 2010, and then slandered by comments made by Burgess at April and May board meetings. In reference to Ruksznis, Burgess publicly spoke about his “less than quality decisions,” and said “there have been a couple of issues concerning both his job performance and actions outside of work.” Ruksznis is seeking a jury trial, reinstatement, back pay and undisclosed amounts in compensatory and punitive damages.
Ruksznis, who also is suing on three civil rights violations, including due process, was dismissed as the town’s independent plumbing inspector in April when selectmen acted on the planning board’s advice to combine the positions of plumbing inspector and code enforcement officer to streamline business. As such, the board named George Tozier, who was the code enforcement officer, as plumbing inspector.
Sangerville Town Manager Dave Pearson told residents Thursday that Ruksznis originally had filed a notice of a lawsuit in late 2010 naming the three selectmen at the time — Burgess, Tom Carone and the late Harold Leland — as well as then-acting town manager Alvina Church. Ruksznis, who is employed as the manager of the Guilford-Sangerville Sanitary District, later dropped all but Burgess from the lawsuit.
Although the town was not specifically named in the lawsuit, the Maine Municipal Association and the town’s attorney, Eaton Peabody of Bangor, says it has the duty to defend Burgess because he was a town official at the time.
“Eaton Peabody’s opinion was that under the Maine Tort Claims Act, if you’ve got a selectman acting in an official capacity, he really is covered and is supposed to be defended by the town he works for,” Pearson said. “The purpose of that law is basically to guarantee that anybody who sits up here on a volunteer board or a planning board or something like that isn’t going to lose his house or lose his home if he denied somebody a permit or does some kind of action which is part of his job.”
Residents rejected 37-8 to expend up to $5,000 to seek a second legal opinion about the town’s liability in the case.
The town’s attorney says the town has a strong case and that Ruksznis will not prevail in federal court for a number of reasons, including the fact he was an appointed official and that he had administrative remedies that he didn’t use, Pearson said. “Unfortunately, somebody has to go to federal court and make the argument on behalf of the town that the case should be dismissed,” he said. The attorney said the town’s legal cost could be as high as $30,000, he said. The town already has depleted its 2011 legal fund of $10,000.
While the town carries professional liability insurance, it did not carry employee practice insurance in 2010 which, according to the insurance company, would have covered the town in the event Ruksznis prevails, Pearson said. Pearson and the town’s attorney, however, say the town should be covered under the professional liability insurance.