Waste-water whistle- blowers win lawsuit against city
A Circuit Court jury has found the city retaliated against four current and former waste-water employees for blowing the whistle on abuses at the city's Kailua Wastewater Treatment Plant.
The jury awarded them a total of $75,000 of about $600,000 sought. The plaintiffs say the suit was never about money, but about holding the city and its managers accountable.
"It's like nothing happened, and they put all these people back in the same position," plaintiff Kenneth Mersburgh said yesterday.
The city maintained during the nearly three-week trial before Circuit Court Judge Sabrina McKenna that it did nothing wrong and that the employees' rights were not violated. The city is reviewing its options and will decide whether to challenge the jury's awarding of general damages, said Deputy Corporation Counsel Marie Manuele Gavigan.
Mersburgh, Solomon Silva, Norman Salsedo and George Smith, who were assigned to the Kailua Wastewater Treatment Plant as truck drivers or plant workers, filed suit in June 2002 alleging they were retaliated against by their supervisors for blowing the whistle on illegal activities.
They alleged among other things that they were harassed on the job after they reported that employees were being made to do work at the home of a supervisor's mother on city time and that they were being denied promotions and overtime while supervisors were not.
They alleged that the environment at the plant had became so hostile that they feared it would result in workplace violence.
City officials have said they addressed problems at the Kailua plant by reassigning a top manager to the facility who took action, including cutting back on overtime to supervisors for work that the rank and file could have performed.
The jury, in its May 5 verdict, awarded general damages of $25,000 each to Silva, Salsedo and Smith and none to Mersburgh. They also found that the city did not wrongfully terminate Silva for threatening a supervisor.
"I think the way the jury looked at it -- they sort of felt like these guys had done the right thing and probably felt there needed to be a message sent but that the city maybe was not as culpable for this as the lower-level supervisors," said William Sink, attorney for the plaintiffs.
Supervisors Wayne Salas, Harry Hauck III and Jay S. Gonsalves were dismissed early on from the case.
Hauck and Gonsalves pleaded guilty and no contest respectively to misdemeanor theft last year for bringing Silva and Salsedo to Gonsalves' mother's home in Enchanted Lake on two separate occasions to install and then later fix a sprinkler system. Hauck also was suspended administratively without pay because of the matter but was later promoted.
Gavigan said the city is pleased the jury did not award damages to Mersburgh, who was paid even while placed on leave while the city investigated numerous complaints filed by him and against him by fellow co-workers.
The jury also agreed that the city did nothing improper by terminating Silva, she said.
"Unfortunately, Silva lost his job, but the city has zero tolerance for workplace violence and a supervisor was threatened," Gavigan said.
Smith is out on industrial leave and has enough years to retire. Salsedo has been promoted to mechanic at the Sand Island plant.