SACO, Maine — A veteran employee is suing a southern Maine city for wrongful termination after the city ended his 25-year employment as its parks and recreation director.
Joseph Hirsch of Lyman filed a lawsuit in York County Superior Court on Tuesday against the city of Saco and its former administrator Kevin Sutherland.
The lawsuit argues Hirsch’s termination after a 2017 incident was a violation of Hirsch’s civil rights because it did not afford him a due process hearing required by law. Instead, Hirsch was fired “out of the blue” by Sutherland, who worked as the city administrator from 2015 to 2019.
What led to Hirsch’s firing is a situation involving a seasonal employee’s improper use of a city-owned iPad, and which led to Hirsch being investigated by the Saco police department for a criminal invasion of privacy.
According to the complaint, Saco Recreation Program Director Kevin Lombard showed Hirsch some text messages that a seasonal employee had sent from a personal account on a city-owned iPad, some of which criticized the department. City policy prohibits the use of the internet and messaging apps for non-work related reasons.
The messages had “popped up automatically” when Hirsch and Lombard were examining the device because the seasonal employee had not logged out of the account, according to the lawsuit. The employee, a college student who was not named in the lawsuit, had turned in the device after the seasonal employment was over, and Lombard was tasked with restoring the devices for future use.
Hirsch assumed that Lombard would notify the seasonal employee that the personal use of the iPad was a violation of city policy, according to the complaint, which was filed by Portland attorneys Shelby Leighton and David G. Webbert.
Months later, the seasonal employee and the employee’s father filed a complaint with Sutherland alleging that Hirsch and Lombard had violated the employee’s privacy. Lombard was put on administrative leave, and Sutherland told Hirsch he would be terminated if he did not submit his letter of resignation, the complaint alleges.
Administrators for the City of Saco did not immediately return a request for comment.
Maine law grants public employees the legal right to receive a written statement of the reasons for termination. Saco’s personnel policy requires supervisors to take progressive disciplinary action with employees who do not fulfill their responsibilities, including oral and written reprimand and suspension before they are fired, according to the complaint.
The lawsuit claims that Hirsch was used as a politically convenient “scapegoat” by Sutherland to address the seasonal employee’s charges of wrongful invasion of personal privacy.
Hirsch pleaded not guilty to all charges, which were dropped when he agreed to pay a $500 fine and do 40 hours of community service.
Hirsch, who earned a college degree in parks and recreation after spending four years in the military, said his reputation was damaged by the incident. He seeks a public hearing to clear his name of the impression of wrongdoing, back wages and benefits, legal fees and training for Saco employees on due process laws.
“I truly loved working at the Saco Parks and Recreation department. It was the job I had spent my whole life preparing for,” Hirsch said. “To lose everything — salary, position, and reputation — in a matter of days has been very hard on me.”