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Whistleblower case sent to Benton court

A federal judge has sent the lawsuit filed by Hanford whistleblower Walt Tamosaitis back to Benton County Superior Court, where Tamosaitis wants it heard.

"We want Washington judges deciding Washington law," said Tamosaitis' attorney, Jack Sheridan of Seattle.

Judge Robert Whaley of U.S. Eastern Washington District Court in Yakima also ruled against a defense motion to dismiss two individuals in the lawsuit, both Bechtel employees.

However, other motions, including a motion to dismiss the case, he denied as moot as the case moves from federal to state court. His decision Monday followed a hearing last week.

Tamosaitis believes he was transferred from his position as research and technology manager for the $12.2 billion vitrification plant at Hanford in retaliation for raising safety and technical concerns. A day after Bechtel National claimed to meet its June 30 contract requirements to earn a $6 million fee, Tamosaitis raised issues at a meeting that called into question Bechtel's claims, Tamosaitis alleged.

On July 2 Tamosaitis was told he was being removed from the project and immediately escorted from the building, he said. He continues to work for Bechtel subcontractor URS, but in a basement office elsewhere with little or no meaningful work, he said.

URS has countered in a court document that Tamosaitis sent an e-mail with inappropriate comments to consultants on the project, which upset the Department of Energy and experts. As a result, Bechtel told URS to remove Tamosaitis from the vit plant project a day before he was escorted from the building, according to URS.

Tamosaitis filed a lawsuit in state court against Bechtel, URS and employees of both companies who were involved in terminating him from the project. When the defendants filed to move the case to federal court, Tamosaitis objected.

A Benton County jury should decide local issues, Sheridan said. He represented 11 laid-off Hanford pipefitters who were awarded $4.8 million in 2005 by a Benton County jury.

In addition, the case likely will be appealed and state courts should make key interpretations of Washington law, rather than the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, he said.

Jury decision rules also differ in state and federal court, but that was not an overriding part of the decision to file in state court, Sheridan said. In federal court the jury would have to reach a unanimous decision for Tamosaitis to win the case, while a Benton County jury would be required to have at least 10 of 12 jurors agree.

Out-of-state defendants, such as corporations Bechtel and URS, can ask that lawsuits against them be heard in federal court. But the judge found that because individual managers named in the lawsuit were citizens of Washington, the lawsuit should be heard in state court.

He also disagreed with arguments that Bechtel employees should be dismissed since they were acting within the scope of their employment, saying that an employer and employees both may be held liable for negligent acts of the employee and both may be sued. Bechtel vit plant managers named were Frank Russo, project director, and Gregory Ashley, technical director.

The judge also disagreed with defendant arguments that Tamosaitis had failed to raise any issue that related to Bechtel managers engaging in unlawful conduct. Tamosaitis alleged that they interfered with his employment relationship with URS in retaliation for his raising safety concerns, the judge found.