EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

September 29, 2013

Former health director demands $145K

Claims councilor's comments were defamatory; now suffers from anguish

By Brian Messenger
bmessenger@eagletribune.com

---- — METHUEN — Former health director Brian LaGrasse is demanding $145,000 from the city for damages suffered after the City Council reduced his salary to $1 — effectively eliminating his job.

In a four-page letter, LaGrasse’s lawyer argues that he was wrongfully discharged and that the city broke state labor law by failing to pay him all wages and benefits on his last day of work. The letter also claims that City Council Chairman Sean Fountain defamed LaGrasse in comments published in the Sept. 1 edition of The Sunday Eagle-Tribune.

“The defamatory remarks in the newspaper, the loss of his job and the Wage Act violation have caused Mr. LaGrasse mental anguish, personal humiliation and extreme financial harm,” wrote lawyer Elise Hoffman.

Hoffman is seeking $145,000 from the city plus legal fees. She sent the letter to Fountain and Methuen Human Resources Director Ann Randazzo on Sept 9. The city’s private law firm, Kopelman and Paige, responded in writing Sept. 18.

“Please be aware that the city has reviewed your letter and has determined that no further action in response thereto is required at this time,” wrote Kopelman and Paige lawyer Mark Reich.

On Friday, Fountain said he was advised not to discuss the demand letter. “I can’t comment on that,” said Fountain.

In addition to the letter, Hoffman filed a wage complaint with the state’s attorney general’s office last week. After reviewing the complaint, the attorney general will determine whether an investigation is necessary.

The wage complaint represents a first step toward a potential civil lawsuit against the city and Fountain, Hoffman said. If a suit is filed, Hoffman said it will include claims for defamation, wages and wrongful discharge.

“I am pretty confident that if I can’t get anywhere with the city, I will file suit,” said Hoffman. “It’s likely, unless I can serve the best interest of my client some other way.”

Alleged defamation by Fountain

The City Council voted June 25 to cut LaGrasse’s $73,149 salary to $1, effectively eliminating the position of health director. Five councilors voted in favor: Fountain, mayoral candidate Jennifer Kannan, Michael Condon, Ron Marsan and Tom Ciulla. Voting in the minority were Jeanne Pappalardo, Joyce Campagnone, Jamie Atkinson and Lisa Ferry.

The council also voted unanimously to reduce public health nurse Amy Ewing’s work week from 35 to 20 hours, which saved $25,000. As a result of the cuts, state public health officials in August pulled the plug on the $325,000 regional 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 he stands behind the council’s vote to eliminate the health director position. Before the cuts were made, Fountain said 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.

Fountain also said that, before the cuts were made, councilors and city employees would call the Health Division office looking for LaGrasse, only to be told he and Ewing were tied up in a grant meeting or working outside of the city.

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.”

“These statements include false allegations that Mr. LaGrasse was cheating and stealing from Methuen,” wrote Hoffman.

Wage claim & wrongful discharge

Both Mayor Stephen 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.

The state Department of Public Health (DPH) has yet to release any documents related to the grant or the Methuen budget cuts, which The Eagle-Tribune requested more than two months ago under a Freedom of Information Request.

Among the documents DPH won’t make public is a copy of the grant itself. Last week, DPH Spokesman David Kibby said the department’s lawyers are still reviewing the documents, which the newspaper requested on July 26.

“It is being processed and we hope to have it to you as soon as we can,” Kibby said.

LaGrasse responded to Fountain’s comments in the Sept. 8 edition of The Eagle-Tribune, claiming he is the victim of a political attack and that any suggestions that there were improprieties with the grant are “clearly baseless.”

LaGrasse said he hired Hoffman as a lawyer two days after Fountain’s comments were published. Prior to that, he also filed a grievance as a result of losing his job. The grievance was denied by Zanni.

According to the wage complaint on file with the attorney general’s office, LaGrasse was laid off July 1 and received his final paycheck two days later. He was then paid $13,773 in accrued vacation and sick time on July 18.

Hoffman said state labor law requires that a discharged employee be paid all wages and benefits on their last day. Hoffman said the $29,000 LaGrasse is seeking for the delayed payments is included in his larger $145,000 demand.

Hoffman’s demand letter also outlines how city officials allegedly failed to follow the city charter when they laid off LaGrasse. He never received a written notice “stating the intent to remove him with a statement of cause,” and because he never received notice, LaGrasse was never able to request an evidentiary hearing before the City Council.

Both a written notice and council hearing are required under the city charter, according to Hoffman.

Hoffman wrote that LaGrasse’s “bumping rights” also required that he be moved to another position in the Health Division.

“Clearly, Methuen failed to comply with the mandates of the charter in this case,” wrote Hoffman.