Ex-city worker to get $18,000

Posted: Sunday, November 11, 2001

The city has settled a civil lawsuit with the former supervisor of the Mendenhall Wastewater Treatment Plant who claimed he was fired for assisting a federal investigation into sewer violations.

Paul Schuitt filed the lawsuit against the city in April 2000 after he was fired, reinstated, demoted, transferred and fired again in spring 1999, according to court documents. The city argued Schuitt's cooperation with federal investigators was not a factor in his termination.

In a dismissal ruling Oct. 30, Juneau Superior Court Judge Larry Weeks ordered each side to pay its own costs and attorney fees. Under the settlement, the city's insurance company will pay Schuitt $18,000, according to City Attorney John Corso.

"The city's insurance carrier determined that a settlement at this time, in this amount, made the most sense," Corso said.

City Manager Dave Palmer said it would have cost more to take the case to trial. The city's insurance policy has a $10,000 deductible. The city's legal costs weren't immediately available and will be covered by insurance, Corso said. The city was represented by Juneau attorney Michael Lessmeier.

Schuitt worked for the city from 1995-99. Court records detail a host of personnel problems exacerbated by and combined with wastewater treatment violations at the Mendenhall plant during that time.

Schuitt's attorney described the suit as a wrongful termination, whistleblower, unsafe work environment, retaliation and breach of contract case. The city's position was that it was primarily a wrongful discharge case without merit, Corso said.

In court documents, Schuitt alleged he was harassed, threatened and physically assaulted by other employees during his tenure at the plant. He also alleged he was fired after cooperating with FBI and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency investigations, according to court documents.

"Paul believed that he was being retaliated against because he was assisting the FBI and EPA investigation into the incidents there," said his attorney, Cathleen McLaughlin of Anchorage. "The city had a different view. They felt they had just cause to terminate him."

As middle management, Schuitt was stuck between senior operators who had a history of hostility toward managers and upper managers who wouldn't address concerns, McLaughlin said.

"Our view was that it was a hostile work environment that caused people to make various choices," she said.

According to the city, the person who fired Schuitt wasn't aware he was cooperating with the federal government and it wasn't a factor in the disciplinary process. Schuitt was demoted after he harassed a subordinate and misled the city, and fired after he failed to return to work, the city alleged in court documents.

Additionally, Schuitt failed to exhaust administrative remedies in dealing with the situation, the city alleged. In court records, the city objected to statements that it did nothing to address problems at the wastewater utility.

Schuitt's supervisor - former city Wastewater Utility Superintendent Andy Bronson - was subpoenaed to appear for a deposition in the civil case on June 14, but asserted his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

In a separate criminal case, Bronson was sentenced June 21 for two misdemeanor counts of violating the federal Clean Water Act after plant employees videotaped him tampering with effluent samples in 1998.

Initially, plant employees wrongly suspected Schuitt of tampering with samples and he was questioned by the FBI, according to court records. Notes in Schuitt's journal point to Bronson as a suspect in the tampering, although Schuitt didn't have evidence to prove it, McLaughlin said.

After Bronson pleaded guilty, he was asked to resign. His position has not been filled by the city, which is advertising the opening.

City Manager Palmer said operations at the Mendenhall plant continue to improve.

"I don't have any reason to think there are personnel issues that are outstanding at the plant," he said. "All indications are that people are working together. The plant seems to be running great."

McLaughlin, Schuitt's attorney, said she is hopeful this chapter at the Mendenhall plant is over.

"The city needs to have a safely and efficiently run plant," she said. "It hurt a lot of people what happened in the last three years."

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