A former employee claims he lost his position at California’s Sonoma State University after raising concerns about how the college handled environmental hazards, including lead and asbestos.
Thomas R. Sargent, 48, filed a whistleblower claim seeking $15 million in damages “alleging that retaliation from top-ranking officials ended his 24-year career at the Rohnert Park institution,” according to the Argus Courier.
As the school’s environmental health and safety inspector, Sargent claims he discovered a chalky substance on top of a science building in 2012 and after reporting it to his supervisor, a maintenance worker was ordered to blow the substance, discovered to be lead, off the building’s roof with a leaf blower.
“All while the children’s day care center was operating nearby,” Sargent’s attorney Dustin Collier told the seven-man, five-woman jury during opening statements.
After reporting the incident to state and local officials, Sargent received his first negative evaluation, and after contacting Cal/OSHA a year later about asbestos dust found in the main faculty office building on campus, received a temporary suspension, his attorney said. By the time he felt he had to quit in July 2015, he had received six reprimands and two suspensions. His lawyer claimed his whistleblower allegations factored into him not being able to find another job.
Sonoma State’s lawyer “denied any retaliation and downplayed the significant of contaminants found on campus, saying asbestos was ‘naturally occurring’ in the environment,” according to the Courier.
Sonoma State attorney Daralyn Durie said testing did confirm low levels of asbestos, a carcinogen linked to the development of deadly mesothelioma cancer, but painted Sargent as a bitter employee who was overlooked for promotion and had sent abusive emails to other employees.
The trial is expected to run through February.