Dr. Walter Tamosaitis has agreed to a $4.1 million settlement of his federal whistleblower retaliation lawsuit against the Hanford nuclear facility about a year before the case was scheduled to go to trial.
Dr. Tamosaitis, an employee of contractor URS, was a lead engineer at the Hanford Waste Treatment Plant on a research team addressing issues involving the mixing of toxic and radioactive sludge so that it be pumped into waste treatment processors. In his federal complaint, Tamosaitis alleged that he suffered retaliation after he challenged by contractor Bechtel claim that the mixing issues had been resolved by a July 2010 deadline, television station KNDU reports.
Tamosaitis filed an administrative complaint with the Department of Labor (DOL) in 2010 under the whistleblower provisions of the Energy Reorganization Act (ERA) that provide protection to whistleblowers working at federal nuclear facilities. Under the ERA, if DOL has not resolved a complaint within one year, the whistleblower can file the case in federal district court. When DOL did not resolve the complaint within the requisite time, Tamosaitis filed a federal complaint in 2011.
The complaint alleges that within a few days of telling officials the mixing issue was not solved, Tamosaitis was removed from his management position at Hanford, escorted off the premises, and assigned to a basement office at URS, where he performed no meaningful work for fifteen months. He was transferred to an aboveground office only after he testified before Congress, but was still given no meaningful work. In 2013, he was laid off for “lack of work,” KNDU reports.
Federal District Court Judge Lonny Suko dismissed the case before trial, finding there was insufficient evidence to support the whistleblower retaliation claim since URS, as a subcontractor, was doing what prime contractor Bechtel, told them to do. In addition, Suko found that the ERA did not provide for a jury trial. In November of 2014, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overruled Judge Suko and found, “there is plenty of evidence that Bechtel encouraged URS E&C to remove Tamosaitis from the WTP site because of his whistleblowing.” The Ninth Circuit held that a reasonable jury could find that “URS E&C ratified Bechtel’s retaliation by transferring Tamosaitis, despite knowledge of Bechtel’s retaliatory motive. Equally supported is the reasonable inference that URS E&C could have refused to carry out Tamosaitis’ removal but failed to do so.” This is a landmark case, according to KNDU, because it extends potential liability to subcontractors who sanction retaliation by the primary contractor. The Ninth Circuit’s ruling definitively says ERA whistleblowers are entitled to a jury trial.
AECOM, which acquired URS in 2014, has driven the settlement negotiations that have taken place in recent months. The agreement the parties signed does not admit liability.
Tom Carpenter, director of Hanford Challenge, a public interest group that assists whistleblowers from Hanford, called the settlement “great news for [Tamosaitis] and great news for the public.” He called Tamosaitis a “hero” for raising nuclear safety issues that could have resulted in a catastrophe.