Rockingham/Bellows Falls former town manager sues over termination
ROCKINGHAM >> A former town manager has filed a civil suit against the town of Rockingham and the Village of Bellows Falls.
According to documents filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont, Timothy Cullenen, through his attorney Robert Appel of Burlington, is asking for "declaratory, compensatory, liquidated and punitive damages ... for defendants' deprivation and disregard of plaintiff's constitutional rights to due process either prior to, or subsequent removal from his position as town manager of the Town of Rockingham and the village manager of the Village of Bellows Falls despite plaintiff's repeated requests to be provided a full and fair opportunity to contest his dismissal."
Cullenen is bringing the suit in federal court because he claims the town and village violated his constitutional rights related to due process, wrongful termination, breach of contractual and damage to his reputation.
Cullenen was fired from his position as town manager of April 23, 2013, one year short of the three-year contract he signed in May 2011. Cullenen was then a resident of Westminster. He has since moved to Columbus, Ohio, which, he maintains was "a direct and proximate result of the unconstitutional acts of defendants ..."
Prior to being hired, Cullenen was the town administrator in Ashland, N.H., and before that, according to his filing, he served "as a professional planner and associated tasks for more than a decade making him well qualified for the position to which defendant municipalities appointed him to serve as he had extensive business planning and operations experience."
His first performance review as town and village manager, in December 2011, rated his performance "as at least satisfactory" while periodically exceeding expectations. Cullenen noted that the town Select Board rated his performance "a bit more favorably" than did the Village Board of Trustees, which noted he "sometimes can come across (as) being quick with people at times."
In June 2012, Cullenen's performance was once again rated "at least satisfactory," but the town and village requested evaluations from three municipal employees, two of which rated him "at the highest level" while the third rated him "less favorably."
In November 2012, then-Trustee Deborah Wright submitted a letter of complaint, alleging Cullenen "acted in an inappropriate manner towards citizens of the Village and the Town ... at a regular business meeting ..." While Cullenen's alleged behavior is not specified, notes the lawsuit, it was characterized as "rude, arrogant, disrespectful (and) hubristic." As a result, Cullenen received a written warning from the chairmen of the Rockingham Select Board and the Village Board of Trustees, directing him to "engage in anger management counseling ..." He was also suspended one week without pay. At the November meeting, Cullenen asked one of the trustees to tell a local resident "Explain to Mr. Mitchell — use very small words and talk really slowly — that the parking permits are for overnight parking in municipal lots, which is completely separate from downtown parking during business hours."
Four months later, the full Village Board of Trustees filed a second formal complaint alleging plaintiff engaged in "disrespectful and belligerent" behavior and "badgered and stonewalled the trustees" during a February 2013 meeting.
In response, Cullenen argued that certain trustees "are creating a hostile work environment (for him) and attempting to undermine his responsibilities ... (and) are attempting to have him removed from" his position.
In March 2013, Cullenen again received a written warning, directing him to return to counseling, and attend sessions weekly for at least 90 days, which he contends in the lawsuit that he complied with.
In a performance review conducted in April 2013, Cullenen's communication skills were criticized while also noting that "his particularly off-hand comments in emails has (sic) been mostly curtailed." Also in that review, the board and the trustees recommended that "... the severity of reprimand be increased to substantially impact manager's freedom of decision making/spending and a more extended time off period without compensation be levied." On April 16, 2013, a vote of no confidence was taken with a majority of the Select Board and the Board of Trustees voting to terminate Cullenen. He was fired that same day. "A vote of no confidence merely communicates the view of the voting body that it lacks confidence in the office holder about whom it has taken," wrote Cullenen in the suit. "A vote of no confidence does not remove an officer from office."
"It was an unjust termination and actions will be taken," Cullenen told the Reformer at the time of his termination.
Cullenen contends his employment was terminated "without prior warning, notice of alleged 'good cause,' or any meaningful opportunity to be heard. Defendants further failed to inform plaintiff of his right to appeal their decision." According to the contract he signed in 2011, he had to be given 60 days advanced notice prior to termination. Cullenen also contends the boards violated state statutes when they met in executive session without allowing for public comment the special meeting. Nor did the boards respond to his letter of intent to appeal their decision, notes Cullenen in the lawsuit.
"Plaintiff may not be deprived of his employment without due process of law. Due process requires that the plaintiff be given notice of the charges against him, and an opportunity to prepare and present evidence in his own defense at a hearing before an impartial decision-maker. Defendant municipalities lacked sufficient good cause to remove plaintiff from office as Municipal Manager."
Cullenen also contends that the boards "acted unlawfully, separately and in concert, to damage plaintiff's reputation by their unlawful removal of plaintiff from his employment as municipal manager. As a result of their unlawful and unconstitutional acts, defendants have irreparably damaged plaintiff's reputation by removing him from his position as municipal manager, thereby creating a substantial gap in his employment history. Defendants' unlawful and unconstitutional act in removing from his position rendered his opportunities for future comparable employment opportunities virtually impossible."
In addition to ruling the boards acted unlawfully and violated his rights, notes the lawsuit, a federal judge should award damages "adequate to compensate for the loss of income, pain and suffering, including emotional distress, and loss of dignity and injury to reputation ... as well as punitive damages (and) attorneys' fees."
Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 160.
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