By Elizabeth F. McNamara
Three former Town Hall employees who were let go last summer have filed suit against the town, two for wrongful termination and the third for defamation and civil rights violations. All three suits also rely on findings in the November ruling against the town by Superior Court Judge Susan McGuirl.
The wrongful termination accusations come from Kristin Benoit, laid off from her job as finance director, and Pam Aveyard, laid off from her job as executive assistant to the town manager, by then acting Town Manager Gayle Corrigan on June 30.
Laurie Perry, suing for defamation, had worked in the finance department and was laid off effective Sept. 5.
Benoit started working for the town in 2006 and took over as finance director in 2014.
According to her suit (Benoit v. Corrigan), Benoit “never received any warnings nor was she ever disciplined or counseled for deficient work performance” and that she learned she was being “separated” as of June 30 via a letter postmarked July 3 and which she received July 7. (Benoit was out on medical leave at the time.) The letter said the move was being taken due to “budget restructuring and fiscal consolidations.”
The lawsuit notes the June 19 Open Meetings Act violation found by Judge McGuirl, in which the Town Council met in executive session and voted to both approve a separation agreement with then Town Manager Tom Coyle and appoint Corrigan as acting town manager. But McGuirl found the council acted illegally when it failed to vote in public and did not include appointment of an acting town manager on the executive session agenda. McGuirl also ruled the town failed in keeping a record of the June 19 session. Because of those failures, McGuirl ruled Corrigan’s appointment at that meeting null and void. She also called the town’s actions “willful and knowing.”
Benoit also alleges that Corrigan’s appointment was in violation of the Town Charter because it requires the council appoint a “town officer” to serve as town manager in the event the town manager resigns or is removed from office. The town solicitor has argued it is within the Town Council’s right to appoint who it wants.
Benoit also cites a second OMA violation found by Judge McGuirl from a June 26 executive session, when the Town Council approved Corrigan’s plan to “One Town” restructuring plan which led to the dismissals of Benoit and Aveyard but that restructuring was not included in the agenda for the session (the two agenda items were a lawsuit with Pawtucket Credit Union and discussion of collective bargaining agreement obligations). Additionally, Benoit, a department head, was not notified in advance in writing that she would be discussed at the June 26 executive session. According to the Town Charter, termination of department heads must be done with Town Council approval. If that vote took place June 26, it was not on the agenda and was not recorded in the minutes.
Benoit alleges the council violated the Town Charter when it voted on “a major policy initiative … the so-called ‘One Town Plan,’ because the meeting was not open to the public.”
Corrigan and Dykeman had coined the term “One Town” in a presentation before the Town Council in early June – the idea behind it was to lower overall expenses through consolidation with the school department.
Benoit was replaced as finance director by Linda Dykeman, Gayle Corrigan’s consulting colleague, who was already doing work for the School Department. Dykeman is now finance director for both the town and the school department (although the school department also employee a second person to assist Dykeman in day-to-day activities).
Benoit’s lawsuit also claims discrimination because she was on medical leave at the time of her dismissal.
According to Aveyard’s lawsuit (Aveyard v. Corrigan), Town Solicitor David D’Agostino asked to meet with Aveyard June 30. During that meeting, D’Agostino gave her a letter signed by Corrigan that said Aveyard “was being separated” immediately for “budget restructuring and fiscal consolidations” needed to achieve the “One Town” model. That same afternoon, Corrigan sent out an email to town employees announcing the hiring of a chief of staff.
The newly hired chief of staff, Michaela Antunes, makes $24,000 a year more than Aveyard. The Aveyard lawsuit says her dismissal was not for restructuring and consolidation since her position – albeit under a new title – was not eliminated.
Both lawsuits assert violations of the Open Meetings Act, the Town Charter, the state medical leave act and the state civil rights act.
According to Laurie Perry’s lawsuit (Perry v. Town of EG), Perry learned she was laid off around Aug. 22 while she was out on medical leave from her clerk position in the finance department. Perry is married to Bill Perry, a town firefighter who is also head of the firefighters union. Finance Director Dykeman had concluded her department was overstaffed and laid off Perry, who had the lowest seniority.
But this came amidst several other actions taken against her husband and brother-in-law. The lawsuit refers to one well-documented incident in which Town Council President Sue Cienki said she would “cut off” Bill Perry’s private parts and feed them to his dog if he did not “handle” the firefighters. In addition, James Perry, Bill’s brother and an EG firefighter, was fired Aug. 19.
On Aug. 23, in another well-documented incident, Perry and her husband, Bill Perry, went to the finance department to retrieve Perry’s belongings. According to the lawsuit, Laurie Perry took her belongings and she and her husband ran into Dykeman in the hallway outside the finance office. Dykeman told Perry she wanted to see what Perry had taken – both the lawsuit and a police report from the incident agree with this account. Dykeman told Perry she needed to report to Town Manager Corrigan about what she had taken. The Perrys refused and left the building. Dykeman then called the police to report what had happened and to get a “no trespass” order for Perry for the finance department. According to the lawsuit, Dykeman called police after that initial request, asking the “no trespass” order include “all town offices,” which police did. Later that same afternoon, Chief of Staff Michaela Antunes sent an email to all town employees and the Town Council alerting them that a restraining order had been issued to Perry, applicable to all town buildings and facilities, and urging recipients to notify police if Perry were to be seen “in or upon town buildings etc.”
No restraining order had been issued.
A second email from Antunes to town employees incorrectly reused the word “restraining” with regard to a police order against Perry, the lawsuit claims.
A few days later, in a meeting with municipal employees’ union representatives, Corrigan said she’d learned Perry had a criminal conviction and that she would not consider Perry for an opening at the Parks & Rec Department because she didn’t want to “ruin” Perry’s career by having to publicize the conviction in the event Perry applied for the open position, according to the lawsuit.
In 2000, at age 19, Laurie Perry was convicted of breaking and entering a dwelling without consent of the owner, a felony, for which she completed 100 hours of community service and paid a fine.
That information was in Perry’s personnel file and was known to former Town Manager Tom Coyle at the time Perry was hired to work in the finance department.
The lawsuit also accuses Council Vice President Sean Todd of telling a news outlet that Laurie Perry had stolen property belonging to town employees as well as mentioning Perry’s criminal history (a person’s criminal history is public information).
The lawsuit states, “the false statements made by Antunes, Corrigan, and Todd constitute defamation. Those false statements have damaged Ms. Perry’s reputation; subjected her to distrust, ridicule, contempt and disgrace; negatively affected her character; and caused her to suffer mental distress.”
All three lawsuits make the case that because Superior Court Judge McGuirl ruled Corrigan’s appointment as town manager null and void, Corrigan’s actions after that illegal appointment are also null and void. The Town Council reappointed Corrigan as town manager Nov. 20 and Corrigan the reaffirmed actions she had taken after first being appointed in June.
These three lawsuits, all filed in the second half of December, bring the total number of lawsuits against the town to four, with another one pending from firefighter David Gorham, also for defamation. The town has also filed suit against the firefighters, to determine if it can restructure platoon shifts without union approval. In addition, three firefighters are seeking an investigation by the state police and state attorney general’s office about what they say was a failure to protect their personal medical information.