EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

November 13, 2013

Lawyer: Health director will sue if city doesn't settle

By Brian Messenger

---- — METHUEN — Former Methuen health director Brian LaGrasse will sue the city for wrongful discharge and related damages if city officials do not give him his job back or agree to a settlement, LaGrasse’s lawyer says.

The City Council voted in June to cut LaGrasse’s $73,149 salary to $1, effectively eliminating the position of health director. LaGrasse’s attorney, Elise Hoffman, claims the city wrongfully discharged LaGrasse and violated state labor law when it was late in paying him roughly $14,500 in wages and benefits following his July 1 layoff.

Hoffman said she began initial discussions in late October with the private law firm Kopelman and Paige, which represents the city. Hoffman said she hopes the talks will lead to a settlement negotiation sometime this year.

“Nothing has been put on the table from their end,” said Hoffman. “The whole reason for speaking is to try to solve the matter so we don’t have to litigate. ... I’m hopeful that there will be some type of settlement conversation.”

Hoffman sent the city a $145,000 demand letter in September. The letter alleged that LaGrasse was wrongfully discharged by the city and defamed by City Council Chairman Sean Fountain in the Sept. 1 edition of The Sunday Eagle-Tribune.

Mayor Stephen Zanni confirmed yesterday that a lawyer with Kopelman and Paige has been in touch with Hoffman. Zanni said he will meet with the city’s legal team next week to discuss the matter.

“My understanding is if there is no settlement, they’re going to go with a lawsuit,” said Zanni. “It looks like a lawsuit will be filed, because quite honestly, the city cannot agree to a $145,000 settlement.”

Hoffman filed a wage complaint with the state Attorney General’s office on Sept. 23, or two months after the city was late in paying LaGrasse roughly $14,500 in wages and benefits following his layoff.

The complaint represented a first step toward a potential lawsuit against the city and Fountain.

In a letter to Hoffman dated Oct. 17, Assistant Attorney General Bruce Trager wrote that “the proper resolution of this matter may be through a private suit in civil court. Accordingly, we are authorizing you to pursue this matter through a civil lawsuit immediately.” Trager also wrote that the attorney general “will take no further enforcement action at this time.”

In an email to a reporter yesterday, Kopelman and Paige lawyer Mark Reich dismissed the importance of the letter.

“Please be aware that right to sue letters are typically issued by the office of the Attorney General as a matter of course,” wrote Reich. “Absolutely no findings or determinations have been made in connection with the issuance of the letter.”

According to Hoffman’s wage complaint, LaGrasse was laid off July 1 and received his final $800 paycheck two days later. He was then paid $13,773 in unused vacation and sick time on July 18.

Hoffman told The Eagle-Tribune in September that state labor law requires that a discharged employee be paid all wages and benefits on their last day. Hoffman said LaGrasse is seeking $29,000 in the wage complaint for the delayed payments.

In a written response to the attorney general’s office, Kopelman and Paige lawyer Darren Klein wrote that the wage complaint should be thrown out, in part, because it incorrectly interprets state wage law in an attempt “to unfairly take advantage of the city’s good faith efforts to promptly pay (LaGrasse) all wages owed following his layoff.”

Klein wrote that state labor law is intended “to prevent unreasonable detention of wages.” LaGrasse was paid “just days after his discharge,” Klein wrote.

The City Council voted June 25 to cut LaGrasse’s salary and reduce public health nurse Amy Ewing’s work week from 35 to 20 hours, which saved $25,000. In response, state public health officials in August pulled the plug on a $325,000 regional health grant.

LaGrasse had served as administrator for the four-year grant, which was awarded in 2012 to help financially strapped health departments in Lawrence, Methuen and Haverhill pay for a full-time public health nurse and part-time environmental health inspector. The decision to cease grant funding after this year means the three cities will lose out on $214,000.

In the Sept. 1 edition of The Sunday Eagle-Tribune, Fountain said that before the cuts were made, councilors had heard about potential problems with how the grant was being administered — specifically with how LaGrasse and Ewing were splitting up their work time between the grant and their regular responsibilities within the city’s Health Division.

Fountain said all his efforts to investigate how LaGrasse’s and Ewing’s work hours were spent were “hampered” by city officials. Fountain said he was told his request to examine their payroll records would cost $2,500.

In her demand letter, Hoffman wrote that Fountain’s comments caused LaGrasse “personal humiliation and mental anguish, and significant harm to his reputation and standing with the residents of Methuen and a considerable segment of the Merrimack Valley region.”

Zanni and Methuen Community Development Director William Buckley, who oversees the city’s Health Division, have repeatedly said they have no knowledge about improprieties with the regional health grant.