PORTLAND, Maine — The Maine Supreme Judicial Court has unanimously upheld a Washington County jury verdict that found 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.
Richard C. Hickson, 57, of Eastport complained in the email that Baldacci and his party had not followed safety rules during a visit to the Woodland Pulp and Paper Mill in Baileyville on July 8, 2006. Domtar Industries, which owns the mill, contracted with Hickson’s employer, Vescom Corp. of Hampden, to provide security at the facility.
Jurors on March 21 unanimously awarded Hickson more than $200,000 in damages and attorney fees at the end of a three-day trial. Superior Court Justice Robert Murray later reduced the monetary award to nearly $183,000 plus interest, costs and attorney fees, according to the supreme court’s decision issued Tuesday.
Vescom appealed the decision to the state’s high court, arguing that Hickson wasn’t covered under the statute because he did not report a safety violation to his employer but to the governor’s office.
After hearing oral arguments in November, the justices rejected that argument in a 14-page opinion.
“[T]he relevant provisions of the act require that the report must address violations, conditions, or practices that the employer has the ability and authority to correct, and those violations, conditions, or practices complained of must bear a direct relationship to the employee’s current employer,” Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley wrote for the court. “In other words, the reported offending conduct must be reported by a person who is then an employee and must be connected to the employer in such a way that the employer could take corrective action to effectuate a relevant change.”
Hickson claimed the Domtar official with Baldacci bypassed his security gate, that Hickson was not given a list of members of the governor’s group or its tour route, as was required by federal law and company policy, and at least one member of the group was wearing open-toed shoes, which violated safety rules. The email, sent July 25, 2006, was not sent on to Baldacci by his staff but was forwarded to Domtar, according to court documents. Domtar sent it to Vescom. The firm fired Hickson the next day.
“Mr. Hickson is gratified that the Maine Supreme Judicial Court has vindicated his safety report as protected under the Maine Whistleblowers’ Protection Act and affirmed the jury’s unanimous verdict in his favor,” Hickson’s attorney David Webbert of Augusta said last week in an email.. “Just as important, Mr. Hickson is pleased that his case led to an important decision expanding the rights of all Maine workers to make whistleblower reports about the workplace protected against retaliation by their employers.”
Webbert has said the jury’s award was the largest in Washington County history.
Vescom’s attorney, A.J. Greif of Bangor, said last week that he has asked the state supreme court to reconsider its decision.
“Hickson was the senior Vescom employee on duty who failed to enforce Domtar’s safety regulations,” he said. “You can’t blow the whistle on yourself.”
BDN writer Mario Moretto contributed to this report.