By ERIC GOLDSCHEIDER For the Gazette
A South Hadley Electric Light Department electrician is suing his employer for $750,000 under a federal whistleblower law, arguing that the municipal utility’s manager retaliated against him for going to police after another employee verbally and physically assaulted him in December 2013.
The complaint, filed in federal court in Springfield by Robert Blasko Jr., also names the SHELD board of commissioners and the town of South Hadley for not adequately supervising manager Wayne Doerpholz by failing to take action or responding within six months of having been notified of Doerpholz’s allegedly unlawful management practices.
Blasko claims that Andrew Orr, the employee who he alleges assaulted him, has a history of abusing employees that has included hitting and slapping people and at one point threateningly following someone around with a two-by-six piece of wood as if he were going to use it as a weapon.
Orr declined to respond to questions about the lawsuit on Monday, saying he hadn’t seen it yet.
“I’ve heard all sorts of nonsense and rumors,” Orr said. “I am not going to talk about anything until I have a full view of what the heck is up and down and what the hell is going on.”
Doerpholz did not immediately return calls for comment.
Anne Awad, who was elected chairwoman of the SHELD commission last April, said in a statement Monday that the board’s highest priority is the safety of employees and the safety of SHELD systems.
“The Board will take action to protect employees while we investigate these allegations and will take proper legal action to protect SHELD,” Awad wrote.
Blasko referred inquiries to his attorney, Andrew Gambaccini of the Worcester law firm, Reardon, Joyce, & Akerson.
“The thrust of the case is that Blasko reported improper activities, first to the Police Department, and then through counsel to the light board, about the environment that had been persisting for years in the department,” Gambacci said Monday. “Because of those protected activities he was retaliated against.”
According to the complaint, Doerpholz retaliated against Blasko by giving him “an unjustified 30-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.”
Through union arbitration it was determined that the 30-day suspension was unwarranted and Blasko was awarded his missed wages last May.
In June 2014, Gambaccini wrote to the municipal light board asking it to address what he termed “the hostile work environment created by Andy Orr, an individual who has proven himself, time and again, to be capable of verbally and physically assaultive behavior.”
At the time, according to Gambaccini’s letter, “all that Blasko wants, and all he and other employees of the Department have wanted on this front, is for the unsafe and hostile environment created by Orr and the manager to be brought to an end.”
Instead of responding to that request, Doerpholz continued to harass Blasko, causing him mental and emotional anguish by threatening to terminate him and going so far as to advertise his job, the complaint states.
The complaint also claims that Doerpholz hired an unlicensed private investigator to follow Blasko around when he took a medical leave due to the stress the situation was causing him.
Gambaccini said he intends to take the case to a jury trial. It could take a little more than a year before it goes to trial, he said. If a jury finds in Blasko’s favor, it would determine damages against the defendants.
The 38-page complaint characterizes SHELD as a “tyrannical dynasty” and Doerpholz as having “cast himself in an imperial role, ruling over the Department with no regard for the law and with no accountability to any person or entity.”
Awad said Monday that she asked Doerpholz last May, soon after she was elected to the board, about the arbitration case Blasko had brought relating to his 30-day suspension.
“He never told me about that, and finally when I asked him, he said I did not have the right to know about that, it was personnel and only the manager deals with personnel,” Awad said. “I strenuously disagreed with him on that … As a board member, I need to know how personnel matters are dealt with, so if there is a pattern, the board can work with the manager to improve the situation.”
Town Manager Michael Sullivan said the SHELD commissioners called an emergency meeting for Monday afternoon in which they would go into executive session to discuss the litigation with, among others, the town’s labor attorney, Megan Sullivan, of the Springfield firm Sullivan, Hayes & Quinn.
“Anytime a workplace issue is filed there are no winners,” Michael Sullivan said. “It always erodes the confidence people have in the workplace and it casts a pall over it. I don’t know how it will come out in the end, but the process going in, it doesn’t sound good.”