Former Buckfield library director wins unemployment appeal with DOL

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BUCKFIELD — After initially being denied unemployment benefits, the former Buckfield library director won her appeal with the Department of Labor, which  ruled she was entitled to unemployment. The town can appeal the most recent ruling.

West Minot resident Bonnie Santos was the Zadoc Free Library director from February 2014 until Jan. 21, 2017, when Buckfield Town Manager Cindy Dunn terminated her.  Santos previously served as assistant director of the library since 2010.

The ruling stating the town must pay Santos unemployment benefits came from Department of Labor Administrative Hearing Officer Wayne Reed, according to Santos’ attorney, David Webbert.

“The process has been a ping pong match,” Dunn said about the denial and appeal of unemployment benefits for Santos. “It was ruled in the town’s favor initially. The second time it was ruled in the former employee’s favor.”

The town has until Saturday, May 20, to appeal Reed’s decision.

Santos and Webbert say that her termination was unlawful and it violated town’s Personnel Policy, the Maine Human Rights Act, including the right to medical leave, the Maine Whistleblowers’ Protection Act, the Maine Family Medical Leave Requirements law and the federal constitutional right to due process. They assert Santos was fired because she was scheduled to take a medical leave for a necessary heart surgery, which Dunn has denied.

Dunn previously said Santos’ termination was based solely on her performance. Specific reasons have not been made public.

Last week, Santos welcomed the news of her appeal.

“I am very pleased that the Department of Labor appeals hearing officer’s … report that I received Monday, [May 8] confirmed that I am entitled to unemployment benefits based on the incorrect procedure that was used to fire me,” Santos said.

Dunn previously pointed to the town’s Personnel Policy regarding the procedure in terminating Santos.

The town’s Personnel Policy has a number of steps for disciplining an employee, including counseling and verbal warning, written warning, suspension and final written warning and termination. While the policy states the town will try to exercise these steps in order, it can combine and skip steps, depending on each situation.

Dunn said she hasn’t decided yet whether or not the town will appeal Reed’s ruling. She added the estimated maximum unemployment that can be paid to Santos is $4,000.

“For an attorney to guide the town [through] the process could be more than $4,000,” Dunn said. “At what point do we say, ‘This [paying unemployment] is cheaper than that [attorney’s fees for the appeal].’”

During the Monday, May 15 joint selectmen and Budget Committee meeting, Budget Committee member Sandra Perkins wanted to know if the town should allocate more money for this issue.

“I know we are steadily accruing lawyer fees because of an ongoing litigation,” she said. “Do we need to put more money back into the account to cover this?”

“If it is decided to not play the ping pong match to save attorneys fees and unemployment is issued, it will come from the Reserve Fund if need be so there will be no tax imposition,” Dunn said.

Dunn said she had not received the bill for the most recent hearing, but to date the town has spent $840 in attorney fees on the matter.

Regardless of what action the town decides to take on the appeal, there is still Santos’ wrongful termination case that needs to be settled.

“We won the unemployment but more importantly we got evidence under oath that supports the wrongful termination case,” Webbert said. “Bonnie would like to resolve this matter out of court. Life is too short. I recommend [to] all my clients legal action … should be a last resort. … Mediation, for example, is a very normal thing people would go to and have. Why would you not do that?”

He added he offered the town go to mediation to work out Santos’ case, but did not receive a response back. Dunn said she was unaware of any offer.

Webbert said moving forward, he would file a complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission before taking the matter to court.

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