April 10, 2012

Rights panel sides with two complainants

By Betty Adams badams@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA -- The Maine Human Rights Commission on Monday sided with complainants in two local cases, including one against the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter in Waterville.

Jessika L. Duprey, a case manager for the homeless shelter for four years until she was fired in August, charged that the shelter illegally discriminated against her because of her age and mental disability, and also retaliated against her for exercising her rights under the state's Human Rights Act.

No one responded to her complaint on behalf of the shelter and an investigator recommended a finding of reasonable grounds to believe discrimination occurred. That finding was upheld 3-0 by the commission.

Commission findings are not law, but may become grounds for lawsuits. The commission also attempts to seek conciliation in cases where reasonable grounds are found.

During oral arguments Monday at the commission's headquarters in Augusta, Betty Palmer, the shelter's executive director, said she mailed a response to the complaint that apparently did not get delivered in time to meet a deadline that the commission had extended twice.

She said she was overwhelmed by needs at the shelter and unable to prepare a response earlier.

"Again, my deepest apologies that you did not receive it," Palmer told the panel. "I humbly ask that you give us a chance to have a conversation about that and submit those documents."

An attorney for the shelter, Thad Zmistowski, told the commission that it was the postal service's fault, not Palmer's.

Commission Chairman Paul Vestal told them, "The responsibility was on you all to get it here some way, especially with the extensions that were already given."

Attorney Jason Jabar, who represented Duprey at the hearing, urged the commission to uphold the investigator's recommendation, saying late mail delivery is not an excuse and neither is being underfunded or understaffed.

* In another case argued Monday, the human rights commission voted 3-1 to support a claim that an employee of Berg Sportswear of Corinna was a victim of illegal retaliation when he was fired within hours of telling his boss he had reported the firm for allegedly using pirated software.

Jack Morehouse, of Pittsfield, had made the claim against Berg Sportswear, where he worked as an art director for 17 months, until July 2, 2010.

The commission found reasonable grounds to believe that Morehouse was retaliated against by co-owner Robert Berg for activity protected by the Maine Whistleblowers' Protection Act.

"My client says in email, 'I did report your company's illegal software use,'" said Morehouse's attorney, Jeffrey Schwartz.

The response from Berg, according to Schwartz, was, "This email is the last straw."

Commissioner Arnold Clark questioned whether the email simply identified Morehouse as the source of the April 2010 complaint to the Software & Information Industry Association, a trade group that works to protect intellectual property, among other things.

Berg, through attorney Julie Farr, said reporting an alleged violation to the industry association is not activity protected under the Whistleblower's Protection Act. She also said the report of illegal activity was not made in good faith.

The firm also denied retaliating against Morehouse and said he was terminated "after a long and difficult employment relationship with many warnings, difficult and inappropriate interactions with co-workers and management, customer complaints and inability to perform tasks in a timely fashion," according to a report by the commission's investigator.

Betty Adams -- 621-5631

badams@centralmaine.com

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