Court finds in favor of Aroostook, NMDC in disability discrimination lawsuit

Posted Feb. 20, 2013, at 7:44 p.m.

CARIBOU, Maine — The U.S. District Court has granted summary judgment to Aroostook County and Northern Maine Development Commission, who were sued in 2011 by a Presque Isle woman claiming she was fired because of a disability and because she blew the whistle on illegal activity in the workplace.

The ruling against plaintiff Dena Winslow was filed on Feb. 15 in Bangor by U.S. District Court Judge George Singal.

Winslow, 58, had requested a jury trial and sought compensatory damages, back pay, reinstatement and-or front pay, reasonable attorneys’ fees and expenses, and interest and costs as provided by law.

The summary judgment effectively ends the lawsuit unless Winslow appeals the ruling.

Winslow was employed as executive director of the Local Workforce Investment Board for Aroostook and Washington counties from April 2008 to February 2010. The LWIB is charged with creating programs designed to increase the employment, retention and earnings of participants in the programs. NMDC works to enhance economic development in the region.

The LWIB oversees work that is federally funded by the Work Investment Act. From 1999 until early 2010, Aroostook County was the grant subrecipient for the LWIB. In that capacity, Aroostook County acted as the fiscal agent for LWIB and Winslow’s direct supervisor was Doug Beaulieu, county administrator.

Prior to working as LWIB’s executive director, Winslow had had neck and shoulder pain that was getting progressively worse. According to court documents, she underwent four separate orthopedic surgeries, including a cervical spinal fusion, right and left rotator cuff repairs, and a right hip repair during her two years of employment with the LWIB. After she returned to work following the first three surgeries, she requested accommodations in the form of a secretary to assist with lifting and administrative work and a driver to take her to meetings. The court documents state that Winslow did not get the secretary or driver, but was told that she did not have to go to meetings or that she could use teleconferencing or video conferencing during this time period when her driving ability was limited.

In May 2009, she learned she suffered an avulsion fracture after her spine surgery and needed further surgery.

Winslow claimed in court documents that she perceived that Beaulieu did not want her to have the surgery because of the risk that she would miss additional days of work. Winslow stated that she postponed the surgery out of fear that she would lose her job. She also did not request accommodations at that time. She had the surgery in February 2010 and did not return to work.

The court documents further indicate that in November 2009, Winslow participated in a federal monitoring visit of the LWIB program so that the U.S Department of Labor could ensure that the program was operating in compliance with federal law. During the visit, Winslow learned that it was a violation of federal law for her to report to the county administrator rather than the LWIB.

In January 2010, the LWIB board voted to transfer the administration of LWIB from Aroostook County to NMDC, so that NMDC would serve as fiscal agent for LWIB. Winslow then learned that NMDC intended to advertise for a new executive director. She was terminated from her position by Beaulieu via a letter in February 2010 during the time she was recovering from her fourth surgery, stating that an agreement had been signed designating NMDC as the new grant subrecipient and fiscal agent for the local WIA program, and that county commissioners had approved the termination because The County would no longer be involved with the administration of this WIA program. Winslow interviewed for the new LWIB executive director position at NMDC but was not hired. In May 2010, she filed a complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission alleging discrimination based on disability and whistleblower retaliation. Winslow received a right to sue letter from the commission in January 2011.

In his ruling earlier this month, Judge Singal found that Winslow had failed to establish that her disabilities caused her termination.

“There is no genuine dispute that the but-for cause of Winslow’s termination by Aroostook County was the fact that it was no longer going to be the fiscal agent for the LWIB and, as result, would no longer have funding for the executive director position held by Winslow,” Singal wrote.

The court also ruled that her claim of failure to provide reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act was barred by the statute of limitations, as she failed to file complaints in the required time limit after the alleged acts occurred.

The court also rejected her claim of failure to provide reasonable accommodations under the Maine Human Rights Act. Singal ruled that the court believed that the alternative accommodations allowed by Aroostook County after Winslow’s surgeries reflected a “good faith effort” to provide “an equally effective opportunity” to Winslow.

Winslow also claimed discrimination under the Maine Whistleblowers Protection Act, stating in her lawsuit that her termination was prompted by her attempts to report that the LWIB was violating federal law when it allowed its fiscal agent to supervise, hire and fire LWIB’s executive director.

But the court found that “Winslow’s alleged reports do not qualify for whistleblower protection” and that it was likely Aroostook County’s actions in terminating her

“were motivated by a simple desire to respond to the violations that came to light in November 2009.”

Beaulieu said Wednesday that The County was happy with the outcome and had expected the ruling all along. He said it was difficult to read the allegations made against himself and others in court documents, because he felt that they had done everything possible to accommodate Winslow’s health issues.

Peter Marchesi of Waterville, attorney for The County, said Wednesday evening that he was “extremely pleased” with the outcome and had also expected it. He said that Aroostook County had documentation that it had discussed the possibility of finding a new grant subrecipient prior to Winslow’s tenure.

“There was no discrimination,” he said. “Quite the contrary; The County went out of its way to accommodate her. The fact is, this is Winslow’s third such claim against her third separate employer.”

Winslow is one of two former employees of Learning Disabilities Association of Maine who are currently suing for violations under the Maine Whistleblower Protection Act and the Maine Human Rights Act after they were allegedly fired from their jobs for complaining about conditions or practices at the company that they believed to be illegal.

Winslow’s attorney, Arthur J. Grief of Bangor, did not respond to a request for comment. Melinda Caterine of Portland, attorney for NMDC, could not be reached for comment Wednesday evening.

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