Panel rules in favor of Caribou worker on disability

Posted Aug. 12, 2010, at 9:13 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 11:53 a.m.

CARIBOU, Maine — The Maine Human Rights Commission found reasonable grounds earlier this week to believe that a Caribou woman who was working for the city of Caribou as its director of community development was terminated unlawfully after her employer failed to work with her to find a reasonable accommodation for her disability.

The panel also found reasonable grounds to believe that Mary A. Walton was fired because of whistle-blower retaliation.

“She is thrilled,” her attorney said of Walton, who was fired by the city in 2008 after eight years on the job.

“This has been a long time coming, and she felt that is was an uphill battle at times,” said Matthew Keegan of the law firm of Johnson & Webbert of Augusta. “To have the commissioners and the investigator all agree was great.”

The city has denied it terminated her unlawfully, maintaining that Walton was let go because she refused to accept accommodations offered, proposed and insisted on part-time work at home and other conditions that weren’t reasonable, and was hostile and uncooperative with her supervisor. The city also argued that Walton and her physician stated in writing that she would be out of work for an indefinite period of time, which is another reason she was terminated.

Walton was diagnosed with Meniere’s disease in 1997, a condition associated with nerve damage, daily headaches, chronic pain, insomnia and depression among other symptoms. She has had three surgeries since the diagnosis, including brain surgery in 2006 and surgery to remove a mass from her neck in 2008. She took time off work under the Family Medical Leave Act in 2006 and again in 2008, but in 2008, she needed more time off from work than was allowed for under the act.

Since Walton worked part time at home during her 2006 family medical leave, she asked for similar accommodations during her 2008 leave. She was cleared by her doctor to work part time at home in September of that year. According to a commission investigator’s report, Caribou City Manager Steve Buck outlined conditions for the at-home work that “seemed onerous and unnecessary.”

The investigator found that Walton’s proposal for working at home was “entirely reasonable.”

According to the report, Walton and her doctor explained to Buck that she was not medically able to return to work under his conditions. Buck refused to speak to Walton or her doctor about modifying his conditions, and her employment was terminated.

The commission investigator also found no evidence that Walton or her physician ever stated in writing that she would be out of work indefinitely.

In addition, the investigator’s report stated that under the Caribou city charter, employees are entitled to one week’s notice and a hearing before they are terminated. Walton did not receive advance notice or a hearing.

The city’s position was that the policy applied only to “disciplinary terminations” and argued that it did not apply to Walton because she was “unable to return to work for medical reasons.”

Regarding the whistle-blower allegations, the investigator’s report referred to 2006 when Walton expressed dissatisfaction with her pay, hired an attorney and won the wage increase she sought. In 2008, Walton also grew dissatisfied with a wage plan developed and tentatively adopted by the City Council for city employees, believing she was entitled to more money. She took a grievance to the council that year and won, receiving more than $2,000 in retroactive pay.

The commission investigator recommended that commission members find reasonable grounds that Walton was discriminated against because of her disability and that she was retaliated against under the whistle-blower act. The commissioners went along with the recommendation.

The commission now will try to get the parties together to resolve their issues.

The panel’s rulings are not law, but may become grounds for lawsuits.

Keegan said that Walton “loved her job and that was the reason she wanted to do it and was able to do it despite her illness.”

He added that she brought more than $6.5 million in grants into the city during her tenure. She has done some freelance grant writing since she was terminated but has not yet found another job.

He said that if the issue cannot be resolved in the coming months, Walton likely would move forward with a lawsuit in federal court.

If she prevails, the city could be forced to rehire her with back pay of more than $100,000, pay her damages and her attorney fees and expenses, he said.

Buck did not return a call seeking comment Thursday.

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