Ellsworth company wins employee discrimination case

Posted Nov. 09, 2011, at 8:05 p.m.

ELLSWORTH, Maine — A local general contracting firm has been found innocent of worker discrimination in a civil trial in Hancock County Superior Court.

A jury of seven women and two men reached the verdict Wednesday afternoon at the end of a three-day trial in Hancock County Superior Court.

Earl Richardson of Franklin had been seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages against former employer Harold MacQuinn Inc. of Ellsworth. Richardson claimed the company wrongfully dismissed him in 2007, four years after he suffered a long-term injury when he fell from a MacQuinn truck and hurt his right shoulder.

The company denied that it terminated Richardson because of his physical disability. Richardson had a history of not showing up to work, company officials said, and after being laid off seasonally at the end of 2007 with other MacQuinn employees, Richardson never contacted the firm the next spring to inquire when he could return to work.

MacQuinn’s attorney, David King of Bangor, said Wednesday afternoon that his client had faith it would be exonerated in the civil trial.

“We think the jury rendered a just verdict based on the evidence presented to them,” King said.

In an email, Richardson’s attorney, Charles Gilbert of Bangor, said that his client is considering filing an appeal of the acquittal. In rulings before and during the trial, Gilbert wrote, Justice Kevin Cuddy barred testimony about whether MacQuinn made appropriate accommodations for Richardson’s disability, as required by law, and about other alleged instances of discrimination by MacQuinn.

“We are disappointed,” Gilbert wrote about the verdict.

In the trial’s closing arguments on Wednesday morning, Gilbert told the jury that the case was about worker discrimination. Despite the injuries to his shoulder, Richardson was qualified to continue working as a truck driver for the company with reasonable workplace accommodations and had permission from his doctor to do so, Gilbert said.

State law required MacQuinn to accommodate Richardson’s disability, Gilbert said, as long as Richardson could perform the basic duties of his job. So in April 2007, after Richardson had four surgeries to repair his shoulder and missed more than a year of work, Richardson went back to driving a truck for MacQuinn.

But MacQuinn gave Richardson a make-work job of driving a truck around the firm’s gravel pit in Hancock rather than an easier job of transporting materials down paved roads because its insurer told the firm it had to take him back, Gilbert said. The company tried to make Richardson “miserable,” the attorney told the jury, so he would quit. But Richardson never had to call his co-workers for assistance while on the job, he said.

“Harold MacQuinn [Inc.] ran afoul of the law,” Gilbert told the jury. “They wanted to put him in a dead-end position. They wanted to put him in a position to fail.”

King told the jury that Richardson had a history of absenteeism on the job. Richardson actually was fired from MacQuinn in 2001, a year after he began working for the company, for unexplained absences from work, but later was rehired, King said. He had unexplained absences from work again in October 2002 and then in 2003 wrenched his shoulder when his feet slipped off the side of a truck while he tried to hold on to the side of the vehicle.

In the last two weeks of December 2007, Richardson showed up to work only one day, King said.

“This was not unusual for him,” King said. “These facts show no intent to discriminate against Mr. Richardson based on his disability.”

And the concept of ‘reasonable accommodation’ only goes so far for disabled employees, King suggested. By Richardson’s own admission, according to MacQuinn’s attorney, he admitted he would not have been able to climb into the back of the truck to clean it or to secure loads.

“He could not do that essential function of his job,” King said.

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