Hanford subcontractor URS has agreed to settle a lawsuit brought by former employee Walter Tamosaitis for $4.1 million.
The settlement in the whistleblower case comes almost one year before the case was set for a jury trial in federal court in Richland.
“We are very pleased that Walter can get on with his life after five years of litigation and that he has been vindicated,” said Jack Sheridan of Seattle, Tamosaitis’ attorney.
“This settlement sends a message to whistleblowers everywhere that integrity and truth are worth fighting for and that you can win if you don’t give up.”
Tamosaitis believes he was removed as the research and technology manager for the massive vitrification plant under construction at Hanford because he raised questions about the future safe operation of the plant. It could start turning radioactive waste left from past production of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program into a stable glass form for disposal in 2022.
AECOM, which acquired URS last year, said it agreed to settle “to avoid the cost and distraction of litigation relating to events that occurred over five years ago. The company strongly disagrees that it retaliated against him in any manner.”
Tamosaitis told the Herald Wednesday that he hopes his win sends a message to “all those out there — especially the young engineers who have integrity, are honest and have the courage to hang in there — that justice will prevail. Wrong only prevails when good people don’t speak up.”
In the summer of 2010, Tamosaitis raised a concern that technical issues, including some related to keeping waste well-mixed within the plant, had not been resolved as Bechtel National was working to meet a deadline, according to court documents. At risk was an incentive payment of $6 million to be split between Bechtel and URS, with much of it dependent on resolving the mixing issue by the end of July 2010.
Bechtel holds the Department of Energy contract to build the vitrification plant and URS, now part of AECOM, is its primary subcontractor. Tamosaitis was employed by URS.
A few days after Tamosaitis discussed his concerns, he was removed from the project and escorted from vitrification plant offices, according to court documents.
He continued to work for URS but had no meaningful duties for 15 months and then was laid off, Sheridan said.
Bechtel and AECOM have strongly denied that either retaliated against Tamosaitis. They say his assignment at the vitrification plant ended and that he was removed after he sent an email that offended consultants on the project.
Tamosaitis responded to his removal by sending a letter to the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. That led to a continuing investigation of safety culture — the attitudes toward and importance of safety — that expanded from the vitrification plant to the Department of Energy office responsible for the vit plant to other DOE environmental cleanup sites across the nation.
“The money was not why I got into it,” Tamosaitis said, referring to the lawsuit. “I really got into it to make changes and to help others and improve the workplace.”
He agreed to settle when he believed most of his goals in taking legal action had been met, resulting in changes at Hanford and other DOE sites, he said.
He also insisted that the settlement agreement include no confidentiality statement keeping the settlement terms secret, so that others would see that “integrity, honesty and forthrightness will lead to justice.”
Former Energy Secretary Steven Chu spent several days at Hanford discussing technical issues, including those raised by Tamosaitis. Construction on key parts of the plant that will handle high-level radioactive waste has been halted since 2012 to allow technical issues to be resolved.
Tamosaitis now is confident that the issues he raised in 2010 have been considered and that the plant will be built correctly and will operate safely, he said. Legal precedence was set in the complaints he filed, he added.
Federal Judge Lonny Suko dismissed the court case filed by Tamosaitis against URS, finding that there was insufficient evidence to support Tamosaitis’ whistleblower retaliation claim because URS, as a subcontractor, was only doing what Bechtel, the prime contractor, told it to do.
He also found that Tamosaitis could not have his case heard by a jury under the federal Energy Reorganization Act, which provides protection to workers at federal nuclear facilities. The law did not provide for a jury trial, Suko said.
In November 2014, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overruled Suko and found that there was evidence that Bechtel encouraged URS to remove Tamosaitis from the vitrification plant project because he had raised safety concerns. There also was evidence that URS knew Tamosaitis’ whistleblowing motivated Bechtel and that URS carried out the removal, the appeals court said.
Not only did the 9th Circuit decision establish that subcontractors are potentially liable for sanctioning retaliation by a prime contractor, it also established that federal whistleblowers are entitled to a jury trial, Sheridan said.
Sheridan said AECOM managers have driven settlement negotiations in recent months after acquiring URS in fall 2014.
“Safety at all of our projects, including the Waste Treatment Plant project, is our number one priority,” AECOM said in a statement Wednesday. “Our strong nuclear safety and quality culture encourages both a questioning attitude and one’s right to hold a differing professional opinion.”
The company will not tolerate retaliation or harassment in any form against anyone who raises a safety issue in good faith, AECOM said.
“The company is pleased to put this matter behind us and continue with the important cleanup work at the Hanford Site,” it said.
Tamosaitis also sued Bechtel in Benton County Superior Court, claiming that Bechtel improperly interfered with his employment with URS. He lost that case.
Last year, the Washington State Court of Appeals upheld that court’s dismissal of the case, saying Tamosaitis failed to show he had lost wages or other money as a result of being removed from work on the Hanford vitrification plant.
“Bechtel was not a party to the settlement” with URS, Bechtel said in a statement. “Our excellent safety record and the results of independent surveys demonstrate our commitment to a strong nuclear safety culture and zero tolerance for retaliation.”
Bechtel’s commitment to safety is unwavering and its focus remains on the important work of Hanford cleanup, it said.
Tom Carpenter, director of Hanford Challenge, a Seattle-based advocate for Hanford workers and Hanford watchdog, applauded the settlement.
“Walt is a hero who staked his career to raise nuclear safety issues that could have resulted in a catastrophe down the road,” Carpenter said. “His issues were investigated and validated and those safety issues are being scrutinized and corrected.”
His legal cases and willingness to go public about his concerns “call attention to the abysmal treatment of employees who bring forward safety issues,” Carpenter said.
The $4.1 million settlement with URS includes almost $1.4 million for lost wages and $1.1 million for emotional distress and mental anguish. A check for the remainder of the money is to be sent to the Sheridan law firm.
“There is no amount of money they could have paid for what they took away from me,” Tamosaitis said. “Work was my calling. My focus really was not the money but making changes in the culture to make it better for others, and I think I’ve done that.”