EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 7, 2013

City lawyer: Dismiss health director complaint

By Brian Messenger

---- — METHUEN — The state attorney general should throw out a wage complaint filed against the city by former health director Brian LaGrasse, says a lawyer representing the city.

LaGrasse’s lawyer filed the wage complaint Sept. 23, two months after the city was late in paying him roughly $14,500 in wages and benefits following his July 1 layoff.

The complaint represents a first step toward a potential lawsuit against the city and City Council Chairman Sean Fountain, according to lawyer Elise Hoffman, who is representing LaGrasse.

In response, the private law firm representing the city sent a letter to the attorney general’s office last week requesting that the complaint be dismissed, 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.”

According to the 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 last month 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 the city’s response letter, Kopelman and Paige lawyer Darren Klein wrote that state labor law is intended “to prevent unreasonable detention of wages.” LaGrasse was paid “just days after his discharge,” Klein wrote.

“LaGrasse has now filed a wage complaint in an attempt to unfairly extract attorney’s fees and unwarranted treble damages from the city despite the fact that there is no evidence that his wages were unlawfully withheld for an unreasonable period of time,” Klein wrote. “His only contention is that these payments were not made on the precise date of his discharge.”

After reviewing the wage complaint, Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office will determine whether an investigation is necessary. In addition to the complaint, Hoffman sent the city a $145,000 demand letter. The letter alleges that LaGrasse was wrongfully discharged by the city and defamed by Fountain in the Sept. 1 edition of The Sunday Eagle-Tribune.

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 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.”

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.

On July 26, The Eagle-Tribune requested documents related to the grant and the Methuen budget cuts from the state Department of Public Health. DPH has yet to release any documents, including a copy of the grant itself.