STONINGTON, Maine — A two-year-old discrimination case against Stonington officials brought by a former town manager appears headed for a jury trial.
Howard Willinghan has accused Stonington selectmen of refusing to consider his requests for “reasonable accommodations” for a serious back problem stemming from an injury suffered years earlier. Instead, Willinghan has claimed that selectmen forced him to resign a few weeks after he brought the issue to their attention.
Town officials have argued that Willinghan’s resignation was not coerced and that his requested accommodations were unreasonable given his position with the town.
Last week, U.S. District Court Judge John Woodcock rejected the town’s request to halt the federal discrimination suit, ruling that “genuine issues of material fact remain as to Mr. Willinghan’s claims of denial of reasonable accommodation and retaliation.” As a result, the case could be heard by a jury this May, said David Webbert, Willinghan’s attorney.
“It is a case that clearly deserves to go to a jury,” said Webbert with the Johnson & Webbert law firm in Augusta.
The town’s attorney agreed.
“I think we have excellent defenses and obviously we look forward to having a jury decide the case,” said Jonathan Brogan of the Portland firm Norman, Hanson & DeTroy.
Willinghan was hired as town manager of the Hancock County island community in January 2007, and according to court documents, received positive feedback during his initial months to the point that he was soon offered a 5-year contract. But by August 2007, Willinghan said he began experiencing increased back pain stemming from a 1984 spinal injury that had required five reconstruction surgeries.
Willinghan’s original discrimination complaint claims that Stonington selectmen refused to consider several requests to accommodate his disability while he sought additional treatment. Those requests included working from home with scheduled office hours and appointments, or four to six weeks of unpaid medical leave while he received treatment.
On Oct. 22, 2007, Stonington selectmen met in executive session and later voted to request Willinghan’s resignation. He submitted his letter of resignation the following day “based on my present physical condition, the advice of medical advisors, my obligation to the Town of Stonington and at the request of the Select Committee.”
In court documents, the town’s attorneys have argued that Willinghan was under no obligation to resign despite the request and that he never supplied medical records to support his requests. Willinghan said documentation was never requested.
Furthermore, the town argued that Willinghan’s requests for “indefinite leave” and to work from home were unreasonable due to the important functions carried out by a town manager.
“Attendance is an essential function of any job and it is not ‘reasonable’ to expect an employer to reallocate an employee’s functions to another employee as an ‘accommodation,’” the town’s attorneys wrote in one filing.
But in his ruling, Woodcock said the court records do not make clear why it would be essential for a town manager to be present in the office throughout the workday.
“It could be that in Stonington — a small coastal community with a minimal municipal staff, a vibrant harbor, and a burgeoning summer population — the Town Manager’s continual physical presence in the Town Office is, in fact, an essential part of the job,” Woodcock wrote. “But if so, the record on this motion falls well short of demonstrating this.”
As to the town’s argument that Willinghan was not forced to resign, Woodcock acknowledged that this incident does not constitute the kind of “hostile work environments” that courts typically encounter in such discrimination cases. Willinghan could have refused to resign and forced the board to fire him. But Woodcock wrote that town managers cannot properly perform their jobs without the support of selectmen.
“This does not mean that Mr. Willinghan will be able to convince a jury that in his circumstances, ‘a reasonable person would have felt compelled to resign,’” Woodcock wrote. “A jury might well hold Mr. Willinghan to some of the words in his resignation letter: that he resigned because of his ‘present physical condition, the advice of [his] medical advisors [and] [his] obligation to the Town of Stonington.’”