WOONSOCKET – In a victory for Mayor Leo T. Fontaine, a Superior Court judge has ruled that former Highway Supt. Robert Harnois was not wrongfully terminated nearly three years ago and has no right to pursue a grievance to get his job back.
At issue was a settlement agreement that Harnois reached with the city days after he had been fired on May 19, 2010. The agreement was a swap, essentially – the city would refrain from pressing any criminal charges against Harnois and allow him to resign voluntarily if he agreed to drop grievance proceedings challenging the termination.
Both sides signed on, but four months later Local 3851 of Council 94 did an about face, resurrecting Harnois’s grievance. Harnois demanded his job back, contending he was wrongfully terminated, and the city objected, prompting the ensuing legal showdown.
The court already appeared to be leaning against Harnois in April 2011 when it preliminarily enjoined the American Arbitration Association from hearing Harnois’s grievance, putting the case on track for a full-blown hearing on the merits. After listening to arguments, Superior Court Judge Bennett Gallo made it official last Thursday, issuing a brief order permanently prohibiting Harnois from pursuing his complaint in arbitration.
“I’m very pleased that the judge, having seen all the facts in this matter, has ruled in our favor,” Fontaine said. “I am hopeful that having now put this matter behind us, we can all stay focused on the truly critical issues confronting our city.”
Though Harnois was pressing for his job back in contravention of the settlement agreement, Fontaine said the city never reclassified Harnois’s release from employment as a termination. Today his personnel papers officially show that he resigned from his position.
He said Harnois’s resignation was accepted “as part of the union’s proposed settlement in good faith to avoid expensive arbitration and possible litigation.” Though personnel matters “can be difficult,” the mayor said, “we had to protect the city’s interests and could not sit back and allow someone to unilaterally undo the very settlement that they had proposed.”
Lawyer Joseph Larisa, who handled the case for the city, said, “I think the courts got it right. Once the union settles the matter that’s the end of it. You can’t go to the court and spend thousands of dollars arbitrating something you already settled.”
Harnois could not be reached and his lawyer, Sherry Lussier, declined to comment. Lawyer Carly Iafrate of Council 94 referred questions to Ken DeLorenzo, the executive director of the union, who did not return a message.
Harnois has 30 days to appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court.
Harnois had worked for the city for over 15 years when former Mayor Susan D. Menard appointed him the head up the highway division in September 2008, according to the personnel department.
He had already become a significant lightning rod for controversy during the latter part of the Menard era. The city paid $150,000 in 2001 to settle a civil suit brought against public works officials for using racial epithets and ethnic slurs in the workplace. Harnois was not named as a plaintiff, but he was identified in court papers as one of the leading users of the offensive language.
In 2010, the city shelled out another $100,000 to settle a similar suit in which, this time, Harnois was named as a defendant. The suit was brought against the city by two African American men and another of Southeast Asian descent who worked in the highway division under Harnois.
When former Public Works Director Michael Annarummo notified Harnois that he was to be terminated, Harnois was given a letter detailing seven causes of the action. One was prompted by a co-worker who had accused Harnois of strip-searching him, an incident city officials said could be construed as a criminal battery. Harnois later told reporters he thought the worker was hiding a vial of clean urine so he could beat a drug test.
The letter also claimed Harnois had wrongfully conducted personal business on city time; deployed city employees to work on private property; negligently damaged a city vehicle; failed to report known on-the-job drug use by co-workers; allowed an unlicensed driver to use a city vehicle; and gave away city property to others without authorization.