A Hanford whistleblower case was put on hold until May during a hearing Monday in federal court in Richland.
Bechtel National, which is building the Hanford vitrification plant, and its primary subcontractor, URS Energy and Construction Inc., have asked that part of Donna Busche's case against them be dismissed. Her attorney has asked that the case be halted until this fall.
Busche filed a lawsuit a year ago, saying she feared URS and Bechtel were working to fire her in retaliation for raising safety issues concerning the operation of the $12.3 billion plant. A URS employee, she is the manager of environmental and nuclear safety for the project.
Before filing a lawsuit, she filed a whistleblower complaint with the Department of Labor. With no decision from the agency after a year, the federal Energy Reorganization Act allowed her to file the case in federal court.
Retaliation continued while the case was being considered by the Department of Labor, she said in court documents. Bechtel reorganized and reduced her authority, URS no longer considered her a senior manager, she was excluded from meetings and the two companies countermanded the technical decisions she had been hired to make, among other allegations.
But URS and Bechtel said if she wanted to bring new claims, she must first take them to the Department of Labor. They also assert that she took too long to bring the claims, waiting more than 180 days.
Her attorney, Jack Sheridan, counted that the retaliation was continuous, amounting to a hostile work environment, rather than a sudden and dramatic act, such as being fired, that would be more suitable for a 180 day limit.
It makes no sense that Busche would have to file a revised claim with the Department of Labor every 180 days under continuing retaliation and then be required to wait a year to bring it to court, Sheridan said. The one-year waiting period would potentially be extended indefinitely.
But after URS and Bechtel filed to dismiss federal court claims not brought before the Department of Labor, Busche filed a second legal complaint in November with Labor.
She is asking that the federal court lawsuit be put on hold while the Department of Labor considers her additional claims. If Labor again fails to act, then all allegations of a hostile work environment could be considered in a single federal court case, Sheridan said.
Bechtel and URS objected to a delay in the federal court case.
"We want the case heard as soon as possible," said attorney Timothy Lawlor, representing URS. Both URS and Bechtel have adamantly denied that Busche has been subjected to retaliation.
The public has a right to know that the companies didn't retaliate against Busche, said attorney Kevin Baumgardner, representing Bechtel. National publications including Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times and USA Today have published stories about Busche's allegations, in addition to Washington state newspapers.
Employees named in the lawsuit have had their careers besmirched, Lawlor said. He accused Busche of being a poor supervisor who could not get along with people.
Baumgardner said the reason that Busche wants the case halted is to reset the clock on discovery. Her attorney has provided little information requested by the defendants, he said.
But Sheridan said the defense is painting their clients as the victims, when it was Busche who had been retaliated against for reporting health and safety issues.
She could be required to go forward with two cases if the case is not halted until the Department of Labor finishes reviewing her second set of claims, Sheridan said.
Judge Edward Shea ruled that a limited halt to the case is appropriate, including a hearing on the Bechtel and URS motions to partially dismiss her case. They had been scheduled to be heard this month.
He gave Busche until May 1 to file a status update on proceedings with the Department of Labor, which would be about six months after her most recent claim was filed. That could give him guidance to set a trial date in 2015, he said.
w Annette Cary: 582-1533; email@example.com; Twitter: @HanfordNews