Saturday, May 25, 2013
Michael Nadeau has won his job back a second time, and this time it came with the Maine Supreme Judicial Court’s stamp of approval.
Nadeau, of Windham, was fired 32 months ago by the state Bureau of Insurance on the grounds that he was no longer employable because of his marriage to a vice president of a bureau-regulated insurance firm.
He went to the Maine State Employees SEIU Local 1989 for help. The union took the matter to arbitration, where Nadeau won reinstatement and back pay a year ago.
The state appealed the award to a Kennebec County Superior Court judge, saying Nadeau’s reinstatement violated a statute that “prohibits the bureau from employing persons ‘connected with the management’ of bureau-related entities.”
Justice Michaela Murphy queried the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. She asked whether that phrasing referred to people who had “family or personal relationships with managers of regulated entities” or whether the statute prohibited “employment of persons who are engaged in the work of managing such a regulated entity.”
Even after the high court’s ruling, that question remains unanswered.
The supreme court justices, in an opinion written by Associate Justice Jon D. Levy, declined to weigh in. That section of state law “does not affirmatively express or define a public policy that a Bureau employee cannot be married to a manager of a Bureau-regulated entity,” Levy wrote.
The justices instead sent the case back to Murphy with instructions to confirm the arbitrator’s decision.
“We’re left with no decision on the legal issues sent to the highest court,” said Assistant Attorney General Tom Sturtevant, who argued for the state. “The law court said the statute was ambiguous, and it did not have the jurisdiction to revisit the arbitrator’s decision.”
On the other hand, the union’s lawyer, Tim Belcher, who represented Nadeau, described the ruling as “a very good, strong decision by the law court.”
Belcher said Nadeau was “very excited and I think a little shell-shocked after all this time.”
The high court’s ruling cannot be appealed.
It’s unclear how much back pay Nadeau is to receive.
“He has the right to return to work. He has the right, at this point, to a substantial amount of back pay,” Belcher said. “A man who really did a very good job for the state is ready to come back to do that work. Maine is fortunate to have him. It’s been a long, very tough fight. He’s managed to keep body and soul together. It’s sad anybody would be put through that for falling in love. He’s a very good guy and I’m happy for him.”
Belcher also said Nadeau has been working elsewhere for at least part of the time, though it couldn’t be determined where.
Both attorneys agreed the case was unusual.
“The Bureau of Insurance has never had reason to apply that statute before,” Sturtevant said. “Neither party knows whether this type of marriage relation violates (state law) or not. We are left no wiser with the decision, and unfortunately the superintendent of insurance doesn’t have a whole lot of guidance over what the law means.”
Belcher said the case is rare because “it’s really extraordinary the state would have fought this far.”
According to court documents, Nadeau had worked for the state for 13 years before the firing. He had met his wife, Christine Candage, in 2005 at an insurance company he was assigned to audit, waiting — he says at the direction of his supervisor — until the audit was completed to date her. They married in January 2008.
Nadeau later was ordered to audit his wife’s firm, and he objected, saying it would be a conflict of interest. He eventually put his concerns in writing to Eric Cioppa, the insurance bureau’s deputy superintendent.
Cioppa, in turn, consulted Sturtevant and concluded that state law prohibited employees of the bureau from having “a connection” with insurance company management, and fired Nadeau.
Arbitrator Joseph M. Daly wrote in a Jan. 26, 2012, opinion that there was no evidence that “the bureau considered any alternatives to termination, in terms of assignment of duties,” nor did it show that the state “made sufficient efforts to make sure it was right.”
Sturtevant said the state has “no plans to do anything but abide by the decision.”
Betty Adams — 621-5631