Jurors began weeding through more than two months’ worth of evidence and testimony today in an effort to determine the outcome of a contentious whistleblower trial over environmental issues on Sonoma State University’s campus.
Former employee Thomas R. Sargent, 48, claims he lost his position at the California university after raising concerns about how the college handled environmental hazards, including lead and asbestos. He filed a whistleblower claim seeking $15 million in damages alleging retaliation ended his 24-year career at the school, MyMeso previously reported.
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.
“He did the right thing, and now they’re persecuting him,” Collier said during closing statements, according to The Press Democrat. “He risked everything he had and lost. Again, some might say that’s foolish, but it’s also incredibly courageous.”
The University’s attorney, Daralyn Durie, held Sargent was not the victim of retaliation, but rather a number of reprimands and suspensions due to his conduct as an employee and hostility between him and his direct employer, Craig Dawson, who is also a defendant in the case. Durie claimed the tension between the two escalated when Dawson was promoted in 2008.
However, Collier urged the jury to “look past what he said were distortions and personal attacks by university representatives and find in favor of a man who he said put the health and safety of the campus community ahead of personal well-being and financial security,” the news source reported.