Employee’s whistleblower suit claims workplace abuse at South Hadley Electric Light Department

By Jim Russell | Special to The Republican

SOUTH HADLEY — Workplace abuse spanning more than a decade and failures to address it are among claims at the heart of a whistleblower lawsuit filed by a municipal light department employee against the agency’s long-serving manager Wayne Doerpholz, engineer Andy Orr, the department itself and the board of commissioners. The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court on behalf of the new Labor Law Compliance Center and the light department employee Robert Blasko by his attorney. The suit claims Doerpholz allowed a hostile work environment, failed to reign in Orr when reports of abusive behavior were presented, and refused to discuss the allegations with the board of commissioners.

It also says the board failed to address the allegations, resulting in the complaint being filed in federal district court in Springfield on Friday.

Doerpholz could not immediately be reached for comment Monday, and Orr declined comment.

Language in the 38-page complaint expresses harsh criticism of the light department manager, alleging he was not bound by rules, regulations and laws.

“When Blasko pushed back against that tyrannical dynasty, engaging in whistleblowing and other protected petitioning activities, including the filing of a police report detailing a criminal battery by Andrew Orr, an engineer for the Department and favored employee of Doerpholz, Blasko was met with swift retaliation in the forms of an unjustified thirty day suspension, threatened termination and the stripping away of employment duties that placed Blasko on a form of ‘house arrest’ at work which continues through the present,” the suit states.

Anne Awad, who was elected to the three-person SHELD board in April with promises to bring accountability to the agency, and is now the chair, issued a statement on the matter Monday morning.

“The Board of Commissioners learned today that a lawsuit has been filed in Federal Court against the management and Board of the South Hadley Electric Light Department (SHELD), alleging that incidents of workplace violence have occurred without intervention or prevention by management and Board,” Awad wrote.

“The Board takes very seriously, and as its highest priority, the safety of employees and the safety of SHELD systems. The Board will take action to protect employees while we investigate these allegations, using investigation services online from sites as investigationhotline.org which are experts at this.”

Among the suit’s claims are:

  • A worker “was struck intentionally by Orr” while trying to break up a physical altercation between Orr and another person in 2002 or 2003.
  • In 2006, Orr struck another employee “on the side of the head.”
  • In November 2012, “Orr slapped another Department employee … in the face during a discussion about a work-related matter.”
  • In December 2013, Blasko and Orr talked about the need to contact a customer whose information was on a piece of paper. The conversation led to verbal abuse, according to the suit, “When Blasko objected to the abuse, Orr physically and threateningly advanced upon Blasko, thereby committing the crime of assault, and pressed the piece of paper into Blasko’s chest, a touching without consent or justification that constitutes the crime of battery.”

The complaint was filed by Worcester attorney Andrew Gambaccini, of the law firm Reardon, Joyce & Akerson, P.C.

The court documents refer to an arbitration hearing and related testimony, in which the arbitrator ruled that Doerpholz’ 30-day suspension of Blasko, which occurred last year, was wrong.

Arbitrator Timothy Buckalew directed SHELD “to make Blasko whole for his lost wages and benefits,” and to remove the suspension from his personnel record.

Gambaccini applied testimony from that hearing into the complaint.

Using the arbitration testimony, the federal court documents filed by Gambaccini claims Doerpholz obstructed attempts by a former SHELD Commissioner, in 2014, to investigate the Blasko allegations.

“Doerpholz has stated, as to the Commissioner’s email seeking various pieces of information and for a Board meeting to address the situation, that Doerpholz ‘denied’ the Commissioner’s June 16, 2014 request for information and for a meeting to discuss the Blasko situation,” the suit states.

The lawyer wrote, in his filing last week in federal court, that his client was retaliated against for reporting his complaints to the South Hadley police, his union, and the Municipal Light Board. That retaliation violated the Massachusetts Whisleblower Act, the suit says.

The suit asks that Blasko be awarded “all damages available by law,” including punitive damages and compensation for lost wages, emotional distress and attorney fees.

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