Jury To Decide Florida EMS 'Whistleblower' Case

Fed jury decides if a Collier EMS Medflight pilot was retaliated against for blowing the whistle on safety problems


 
 

AISLING SWIFT, Naples Daily News | | Friday, June 10, 2011


When a federal jury begins deliberations today, it'll have to decide if a Collier EMS Medflight pilot was retaliated against for blowing the whistle on safety problems, mismanagement and racial bigotry.

Or was he simply a disgruntled employee airing his gripes?

Those were the differing portrayals emerging during three days of testimony presented by attorneys for EMS Paramedic and Pilot Mark Holmes and Collier County commissioners.

They rested their cases Thursday, with the plaintiff calling 11 witnesses and the defense about a half-dozen.

After closing arguments today, U.S. District Judge Charlene Honeywell will instruct jurors on the law, asking them to decide if Holmes suffered an "adverse employment action" under the Florida Whistleblower's Act and the federal Family Medical Leave Act, and if that retaliation was caused by his Dec. 18, 2007, "whistleblower" letter.

If jurors say "yes," they will be asked to decide how much to award in damages. Holmes testified he lost $17,162.96 when he was demoted to EMT. He said his hours were changed, causing him to lose a $55,000 yearly job in September 2008 as an accounts manager at a local pool company.

Testimony showed Holmes was fired, accused of flying too low over the Great Dock Canoe Race in May 2008, then reinstated and later cleared by the Federal Aviation Administration. Jurors heard he was forced to work 56 hours weekly to earn the same salary, relegated to cleaning toilets, emptying trash and stuffing folders, and had to wait until October 2009 to return to flying after his August 2008 reinstatement, which required a psychiatric test and safety training that was delayed.

On Thursday, Holmes withstood more than an hour of cross- examination. Although defense attorney Mark Levitt showed the FAA found no violations by Collier Emergency Medical Services, Holmes testified county employees covered up violations.

"It's keeping two sets of books," Holmes said of Chief Jeff Page, director of operations, who heads the department despite having no flight experience. "It could have affected the FAA shutting us down."

"I believe they all lied. That's why it wasn't uncovered," he added.

At times, when Holmes' answers weren't beneficial to the defense, Levitt sarcastically cut him off. But Holmes remained calm and polite as Page sat stonefaced at the defense table.

Holmes, 52, of Bonita Springs, sued the county in 2009, seeking reinstatement to his job of 10 years, alleging he was punished for exposing problems. But Levitt on Thursday tried to dispute that.

"It's not illegal to talk in a disparaging manner ... is it?" Levitt said of his allegations that bosses were unprofessional, making accusations against pilots.

Holmes agreed, but contended EMS employees were accused by their bosses of committing crimes, including sabotaging helicopters - equipment failures later linked to a simple error.

"To just blatantly accuse one of our pilots of doing something that could kill people was just blatantly incorrect," Holmes said.

Levitt also downplayed the racial bigotry accusations that Holmes made against EMS Maintenance Director Ram Bagwhandass. However, Holmes maintained that remarks by Bagwhandass were "completely inappropriate" and detrimental to morale.

He also contended he was prohibited from speaking to Bagwhandass about safety concerns. Levitt pointed out there were no problems during that period.

"Just because there were no safety issues doesn't mean it's right," Holmes said of being forced to relay concerns through another employee, even if he sat next to Bagwhandass.

Chief Pilot Terry Henderson, head of helicopter operations and a defense witness, later testified Holmes misunderstood his mandate.

Although Levitt disputed Holmes' contention that three of four pilots left because of dissatisfaction with Henderson, Holmes stood by his claim.

Levitt portrayed Holmes as critical of Henderson. Holmes maintained he never called him incompetent, adding he was just "tactful ... upfront and honest."

"I think people realized it was a mistake to put him in that position," he said, noting that was the opinion of all pilots, Page and EMS Director Dan Summers.



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