AUGUSTA – The state’s human rights panel says a Waterville police sergeant was subject to illegal discrimination in his workplace.

Jeffrey Bearce worked full-time for the police department for almost 23 years until his termination on Feb. 18, 2011.

The case was handled Monday by the Maine Human Rights Commission. Commission investigator Domini Pham had recommended the 3-1 finding, which carries no legal consequences but may become grounds for lawsuits.

Bearce had been fighting leukemia since 2009 and was on medical leave — during which fellow employees donated vacation time so he could be paid — for about a year, until the end of December 2010, when he gave the city a note from an oncologist clearing him to work without restriction.

Bearce also was approved for Maine State Retirement Disability benefits while he was out. However, Bearce told city officials he had to return to work to keep health insurance until he qualified for Medicare in a year and a half, according to Pham’s report.

Rather than return him immediately, the city had Bearce evaluated. It also began paying him again, according to attorney Edward Benjamin, who argued on behalf of the city’s insurer at Monday’s hearing. “The city wanted a better definition of light duty that he was capable of,” Benjamin said.

As Bearce was going through examinations, his cancer returned and the prognosis was that he would be unable to return to work for another year, according to the report by Pham. Bearce was then terminated by the city.

Commissioners voted 3-1 to find reasonable grounds to believe that the city discriminated against him by failing to provide a reasonable accommodation — such as desk work — when he tried to return.

Bearce, 51, who argued on his own behalf at the hearing, said he had a bone marrow transplant 14 months ago and is in full remission, although he still has health issues including fatigue.

“I am very glad this part is over with human rights,” Bearce said Tuesday. “I felt I was wronged by the city for not allowing me to come back to work the first time I was in remission.”

Bearce also accused the city of Waterville of subjecting him to an unlawful medical examination and terminating him because of his physical disability, but the commission voted 4-0 not to support those claims.

 

Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Betty Adams can be contacted at 621-5631 or at:

[email protected]