Hanford whistleblower's case dismissed

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldOctober 12, 2012 

A whistleblower lawsuit against vitrification plant subcontractor URS Energy and Construction has been dismissed in Eastern Washington U.S. District Court.

The ruling granting summary judgment for URS by Judge Lonny Suko closes the federal case brought by Hanford whistleblower Walter Tamosaitis regarding his removal from the vitrification plant project July 2, 2010.

Suko earlier dismissed claims in the same case against the Department of Energy and URS Energy and Construction's parent company. That leaves no outstanding claims, other than appeals.

"We disagree with the ruling, and we are confident that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals will overturn Judge Suko's rulings in this case," said Tamosaitis' attorney Jack Sheridan, in a statement.

This week, Suko ruled that Tamosaitis had not followed requirements of the Energy Reorganization Act requiring that the Department of Labor have a full year to issue a decision before it is moved to federal court.

The claim was amended to name URS Energy and Construction, rather than URS Inc., after it was filed, and the clock on the year with the Department of Labor started then, the ruling found.

But even if that was not the case, URS was not responsible for dismissing Tamosaitis, Suko found.

URS, a subcontractor to Bechtel National, was acting on the instructions of Bechtel National, Suko said in court documents.

Tamosaitis, the research and technology manager on the project, has argued that he was abruptly removed from his position at the vitrification plant after raising issues about the future safe operation of the plant.

Bechtel needed to end design changes for technical issues tied to safe mixing at the plant to meet a June 30, 2010, deadline or it would lose much of a $6 million award payment, according to Tamosaitis' arguments.

Bechtel and URS have argued strongly that Tamosaitis was not removed for raising safety issues. Instead, his removal was long-planned because his work was ending and because he sent an email that Bechtel believed was disrespectful, upsetting consultants on the project, according to Bechtel.

Bechtel, not URS, solely was responsible for Tamosaitis' removal from the project, formally called the Waste Treatment Plant, or WTP, Suko said in court documents.

Bechtel project director Frank Russo wrote an email to URS vit plant manager William Gay, "directing Gay to get Dr. Tamosaitis 'in your corporate office today' and off the WTP site," Suko said in court documents.

The next day, Tamosaitis was escorted from Hanford offices.

Under the terms of URS' subcontract, Russo was authorized to order Tamosaitis to be removed from the project, Suko said in his ruling.

The evidence shows that URS was pleased overall with Tamosaitis' work on the project and -- up until the date Russo issued his directive -- anticipated that Tamosaitis would have a continuing role at the plant beyond the June 30, 2010 deadline for resolving mixing issues, the judge said.

URS simply carried out a directive from Bechtel, which it contractually was obligated to carry out, whatever reservations it may have had about its propriety, the judge said.

Tamosaitis continues to work for URS, and URS has not discriminated against him, the judge found. His pay has not been reduced, and he continues to receive bonuses. Tamosaitis has been offered meaningful work since being removed from the vitrification plant project, but he has declined it because of his unwillingness to relocate, Suko said.

The judge concluded Tamosaitis had been offered better space than the office basement he shared with copy machines for many months, but he declined to move.

Tamosaitis also had filed a lawsuit against Bechtel in Benton County Superior Court, and the lawsuit was dismissed. Tamosaitis earlier had voluntarily dismissed Bechtel from the federal case.

Tamosaitis has appealed the Benton County Superior Court case to the Washington State Supreme Court and the federal court ruling could strengthen his case there, Sheridan said.

On Thursday evening, Bechtel sent a memo to employees regarding the federal court decision, agreeing with the court that Bechtel directed URS to remove Tamosaitis from the project.

"This had nothing to do with retaliation," Russo said in the message.

At the time, Bechtel understood that Tamosaitis' transfer to a different URS project was in the works and that transfer was acceptable to him, Russo said.

"Neither BNI (Bechtel) nor URS will retaliate against anyone who raises an issue," Russo said.

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