(AP) — An appeals court reinstated a lawsuit filed by a whistleblower at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington who claims he was fired by a subcontractor after raising safety issues at the nation's most polluted nuclear weapons production site. In its ruling Friday, the 9th U.S. Court of Appeals also said plaintiff Walt Tamosaitis is entitled to a jury trial.
The appeals court ruled that a lower court wrongly dismissed the case against the primary subcontractor on construction of a Hanford vitrification plant intended to deal with the most dangerous wastes, the Tri-City Herald (http://bit.ly/1458xbk) reported. "We are anxious to get into court as soon as we can," Tamosaitis' attorney, Jack Sheridan said.
Hanford, located near Richland, Washington, for decades made plutonium for nuclear weapons and now contains the nation's largest collection of radioactive wastes. The lawsuit will continue with only URS Energy and Construction as a defendant. The 9th Circuit ruled that it had been appropriate to dismiss the U.S. Department of Energy from the lawsuit. It's the first time a court of appeals has confirmed that whistleblowers are entitled to a jury trial, Sheridan said. "It puts them on equal footing with other victims of discrimination," he said.
Tamosaitis contends the subcontractor removed him as the research and technology manager of the unfinished $12.2 billion vitrification plant project after he said more time was needed to resolve complex technical issues. Construction on the plant has since stopped because of technical and safety issues. URS and primary contractor Bechtel National disagreed, saying Tamosaitis had completed his work and sent inappropriate emails discussing the issue. U.S. District Court Judge Lonny Suko dismissed the case in 2012 after ruling that Tamosaitis had not followed legal requirements to wait one year after filing an administrative claim with the Department of Labor before proceeding to a federal court case.
Suko also found that URS was not responsible for removing Tamosaitis from the project. Instead, Suko ruled URS acted on Bechtel's instructions, and he dismissed the case. The 9th Circuit concluded that a jury might be persuaded to find that URS could have acted against Bechtel's wishes to have Tamosaitis removed from the vitrification plant project. Emails sent by Bechtel to URS showed that Bechtel and DOE were unhappy with activities by Tamosaitis that were protected by whistleblower laws, the 9th Circuit opinion said.
URS said it was evaluating the decision.
"URS disagrees that there was any retaliation against Dr. Tamosaitis," the company said in a statement. "We encourage our employees to raise concerns about safety, which is the company's highest priority, and we are methodical in addressing the concerns they identify." Sheridan expects the case to go to a jury next year.