Sonoma State University asbestos lawsuit trial begins

A former university employee claims he was the subject of retaliation after he reported contaminants on campus.|

Testimony began Wednesday in the case of a former Sonoma State University employee who claims he was forced to quit his job after reporting the school’s mishandling of asbestos and lead, including one incident in which a custodian was ordered to remove contaminants from a campus rooftop with a leaf blower.

Thomas R. Sargent, 48, of Santa Rosa, seeks $15 million in damages in a whistleblower lawsuit alleging that retaliation from top-ranking officials ended his 24-year career at the Rohnert Park institution. The school denies his claims.

In opening statements, his lawyer said trouble started in 2012 when Sargent, the school’s environmental health and safety inspector, discovered a chalky substance atop the three-story physical education building.

When he reported it to his boss, department director Craig Dawson, a decision was made to apply a coating to the roof to seal it off.

But before that could happen, the roof had to be cleaned of the substance, determined to be lead. Dawson balked at Sargent’s suggestion to hire a private contractor to do the work and instead ordered a maintenance worker to disperse it with a leaf blower, said attorney Dustin Collier.

“All while the children’s day care center was operating nearby,” Collier told the seven-man, five-woman jury.

After Sargent reported the incident to state and local officials, he received his first negative employee evaluation in an otherwise spotless tenure, his lawyer said.

Tensions grew a year later when he reported asbestos dust, believed to be from decades-old ceiling and floor tiles, collecting inside Stevenson Hall, the main faculty office building. Sargent was further reprimanded after informing state workplace safety regulators at Cal/OSHA and later received a temporary suspension, Collier said.

By the time he felt he had to quit in July 2015, Sargent had received a total of six written reprimands and two suspensions. His lawyer alleged he was unable to find another job, in part because of his whistle-blowing activities, his lawyer suggested.

He was forced to spend his retirement savings and suffered medical and emotional damages, his lawyer  said.

“I’m going to ask you to make Tom Sargent whole,” Collier told jurors. “To place him back in the position he would have been if he hadn’t sacrificed his career.”

In her opening, Sonoma State’s lawyer denied any retaliation and downplayed the significance of contaminants found on campus, saying asbestos was “naturally occurring” in the environment. Attorney Daralyn Durie said testing confirmed the scattered existence of only low levels of the toxin.

She painted Sargent as a bitter employee who had been passed over for promotion and was prone to firing off abusive emails to his supervisor and other employees.

Durie said Sargent had been placed on a performance improvement plan as early as 2002 and was disciplined in 2012-2013 for failing to observe the chain of command, not following orders, not accounting for his time and unprofessional communication.

Much of the problem stemmed from Sargent’s interaction with Dawson, she said.

“It is the case that these gentlemen had a very difficult working relationship,” Durie told the panel. “The question for you is what came of that.”

Sargent and Dawson, who met as students at the university in the late 1980s, sat at opposite sides of Judge Nancy Shaffer’s courtroom as the lawyers talked.

A small group of onlookers watched the proceedings. Dawson’s attorney called a union official as his first witness. It was unclear if top university officials would testify in a trial expected to run through February.

Sargent is expected to take the stand next week.

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