MACHIAS, Maine — A jury in Washington County Superior Court found that a Hampden-based security company violated the Maine Whistleblower’s Protection Act when it fired an employee who sent an email to Gov. John Baldacci in 2006.
The jury awarded the plaintiff, Richard Hickson, of Eastport, more than $200,000 in damages and attorney fees in a unanimous verdict on March 21.
“The jury sent a message to Maine employers, saying, ‘Look, don’t punish whistleblowers,’” said Hickson’s attorney, David Webbert, on Saturday.
The company, Vescom Security, plans to appeal the verdict, according to an email from its attorney, A.J. Greif.
At the time Hickson was fired in 2006, he was employed by Vescom, which had been contracted by Domtar Industries to run security at the Woodland Pulp and Paper Mill in Baileyville.
According to the original complaint against Vescom, Hickson — who had a supervisory role with Vescom — was running the gate at the mill on July 8, 2006, when then-Gov. Baldacci was given a tour of the mill by Domtar officials. Baldacci was joined by State Rep. Anne Perry, D-Calais, and David Bowler, a lieutenant in the Maine State Police who, at the time, was Baldacci’s head of security.
Hickson claimed the Domtar officials bypassed his security gate, and that he was not given a list of the members in Baldacci’s entourage or the group’s tour route, as was required by federal law and company policy.
He also claimed that members of Baldacci’s entourage were not wearing “safety footwear” or carrying emergency respirators, and that Perry was wearing open-toed shoes, which violated safety rules.
The complaint, filed Dec. 8, 2010, states that in the weeks after the Governor’s group had left, Hickson brought up his concerns with his own supervisor and with members of Domtar’s security detail, but that no action was taken to prevent safety problems in the future.
So on July 25, 2006, Hickson contacted Baldacci’s administration through a “contact me” link on the governor’s website.
He wrote that the governor and his entourage were not made to follow proper safety procedures, and outlined what those procedures should have been. He wrote, “I am rather tough on safety and this is just a reminder for you in case you should happen to tour the mill on another occasion.”
Bowler, Baldacci’s security chief, received the email and sent several communications to Domtar, which Hickson claimed amounted to pressure to fire him.
“I simply wanted you folks to know about this in case you have a rogue security person up there,” Bowler wrote to the company. In another email, he wrote that “you may have a problem employee on your hands, or at least one that has limited common sense.”
According to the complaint, John Barker, Domtar’s Human Resources Manager, told Hickson’s supervisor that the whistleblowing report “shouldn’t have been done. It could hurt [Domtar’s] relationship with the Governor.”
When Hickson showed up for work, just hours after he sent the email, he was told he’d been fired.
Webbert said his client was a “safety nerd,” and wasn’t trying to get anyone at Domtar or Vescom in trouble.
“At trial, he explained that he was trying to prevent similar unsafe conditions from ever happening again,” Webbert said Saturday. “He was blowing the whistle on safety problems, and trying to make sure they were fixed.”
A.J. Greif, attorney for Vescom, said that the alleged safety violations regarding sign in and emergency respirators didn’t happen. Domtar, which shared responsibility for security, maintained a sign-in sheet for the governor’s group, and the tour did not visit any areas that needed an emergency respirator.
But Webbert argued that whistleblower protection doesn’t require that a whistleblower be correct in the facts of the complaint, only that there be a sound basis to believe a violation had occurred.
“He was the top guy running security. He was not told where they were going. He was not told they’d signed in with Domtar,” Webbert said. “And he had been told the group would receive a full tour,” which would have made the respirators necessary.
Greif said in an email Friday that the jury only ruled as it did because it had not been properly instructed by Justice Robert Murray. He said that Maine law protects whistleblowing employees who “complain about a safety violation ‘committed or practiced by that employer.’”
Since Hickson was complaining about perceived violations on the part of Domtar, not Vescom, Greif said he should not have been eligible for whistleblower protection.
“Mr. Webbert’s theory, which the Court accepted for purposes of jury instruction, was that any complaint about illegal conduct, even if unrelated to the employer, was protected,” Greif wrote. “Thus, he would claim whistleblower status for an employee who endlessly complained that ‘Obamacare is illegal’ on company time. This is not the law.”
Justice Murray had written in an earlier order that there was precedent for whistleblower protections in situations such as Hicksons, where a contractor reported alleged violations “by representatives of the company the defendant contracted with to provide security services.”
Webbert said Hickson found employment again six months after being fired by Vescom, and has remained employed there since. Hickson also filed federal charges against Bowler and Domtar Industries in 2008. Those charges were settled out of court.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.