Whisteblower’s suit against Sonoma State University over asbestos response goes to jury

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Jurors in a contentious whistleblower trial centered on handling of asbestos-containing materials at several older buildings at Sonoma State University will begin sorting through two months of evidence and testimony Thursday in an effort to resolve the complex case.

At issue is whether plaintiff Thomas R. Sargent, 48, was deliberately driven out of a 24-year career as the campus environmental health and safety specialist because he complained about testing and remedial efforts that he claims inadequately addressed the risk of exposure to a known carcinogen.

During closing arguments Wednesday, his attorney, Dustin Collier, urged jurors to look past what he said were distortions and personal attacks by university representatives and find in favor of a man who he said put the health and safety of the campus community ahead of personal well-being and financial security, despite his employer’s efforts to shut him down.

“He did the right thing,” Collier said, “and now they’re persecuting him.”

An attorney for SSU, Daralyn Durie, countered by highlighting evidence she said showed first and foremost that Sargent’s claims about unsafe conditions were distorted — inconsistent both with expert testimony and with records of monitoring and test results that show little risk to campus personnel and students.

She said Sargent’s own statements reflect early caution against over-reaction to potential asbestos hazards and that the alarm he sounded toward the end of his tenure and afterward reflected an increasingly tense and bitter relationship with his supervisor, who he hoped would be fired.

She said Sargent was not the victim of retaliation. Rather, a rising number of work-place reprimands and suspensions in the months before his 2015 resignation resulted from his own deteriorating conduct and accountability as an employee, despite specific directives.

The trial in Sonoma County Superior Court caps a prolonged dispute between Sargent and his supervisor, Craig Dawson, director of environmental health and safety, whose 2008 promotion appeared to be the inception of problems between the two men, Durie said.

She described Sargent as mounting “a campaign to get his boss fired,” and referenced language used in his emails to Dawson that she said reveal his resentment and, even, malice.

Dawson is among the defendants in the suit, along with California State University trustees.

The case centers on the university’s treatment and maintenance of Stevenson Hall, a half-century-old building at the center of campus in which more than 230 staffers work or have offices.

Like several other older buildings on campus and elsewhere around the country, the structure contains materials incorporating asbestos, which was commonly used until the 1970s because of its value for insulation, sound reduction and fire retardant qualities. But it has microscopic fibrous crystals that can prove deadly after prolonged inhalation.

Sargent, a certified asbestos consultant, and his lawyer assert that the university actively ignored his warnings about deteriorating floor tiles that contained asbestos, as well as dust in the air ducts and air conditioning system, and even withheld information about safety risks from campus faculty. They say campus employees routinely used the improper tools and techniques to clean and buff floors and other surfaces, potentially exposing themselves and others to harmful materials.

College administrators, in contrast, say they have done all that is necessary to contain the toxins.

But Collier said his client “was broken” by the experience, suffering poor emotional and physical health as a result of the stress and harassment he experienced on the job and is seeking approximately $15 million in general and punitive damages related to lost wages and employment potential, as well as emotional distress.

“He risked everything he had and lost,” Collier said. “Again, some might say that’s foolish, but it’s also incredibly courageous.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.

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