Joseph Hirsch has filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the city of Saco and its former City Administrator, Kevin Sutherland, Courtesy Photo

ALFRED — Former longtime Saco Parks and Recreation Director Joseph Hirsch, alleging violations of his constitutional right to due process, has filed a civil complaint against the city he used to work for and the man who he says fired him in 2017 — former City Administrator Kevin Sutherland.

The civil lawsuit against the city of Saco and Sutherland “in his individual and personal capacities,” according to the complaint, was filed Tuesday, Oct 26, at York County Superior Court, and seeks a jury trial.

According to the complaint for wrongful termination, Hirsch, who began working for the city’s Parks and Recreation Department as parks foreman in 1992 and later led the department as director for 13 years, says he was told in October 2017  by City Administrator Sutherland to resign or be terminated. The suit alleges Hirsch was not given advance notice of his proposed termination, or a hearing, and was not afforded progressive discipline as outlined in the city’s personnel policy. According to the suit, the city’s policy described dismissal as a last resort after oral and written reprimands and suspension. The suit alleges that if Sutherland had complied with due process requirements, Hirsch could have proven that he acted in full compliance with all city policies

On Wednesday, Oct. 27, Saco City Administrator Bryan Kaenrath, who began working for the city on Jan. 1, 2020, three years after the alleged events, said the city has not yet been served with the suit. He said he has been advised by the city’s attorney, Linda McGill, not to comment.

Hirsch met with Sutherland on Oct 19, 2017. According to the suit, Sutherland told Hirsch “I want you to submit your application for retirement. And have it to me on Monday.” Sutherland told Hirsch that he was sending him home from work immediately and placing him on leave.

Sutherland later allegedly admitted at a state labor hearing on May 2, 2018, that Hirsch’s retirement was “forced,” and the only other option he gave Hirsh was termination, according to the lawsuit.

Sutherland also allegedly said the only reason for Hirsch’s forced retirement was an incident involving a city-owned iPad that had been used by a seasonal employee. Another Parks and Recreation employee had discovered the seasonal worker had used the iPad to send personal messages in January or February of 2017, an alleged violation of city policy at the time. The second Parks and Recreation Department employee checked the iPad when the employee left the seasonal job to determine if it was working properly. The lawsuit claims when the employee checked the device, he found that the seasonal worker had failed to log out of his personal Apple account before returning the iPad to the city, and so when the employee opened it, he could see personal messages the seasonal worker had received. The seasonal employee later filed a complaint to the city, claiming invasion of privacy.

On Oct. 19, the day Hirsch left the city’s employ, Sutherland sent out an email stating that, “due to breach of city policies, two Parks and Recreation employees have left the organization,” the suit alleges, along with a similar email to families with children in the city’s after school programs.

Both Hirsch and the employee who had checked the iPad were charged by Saco Police with misdemeanor Class D criminal invasion of computer privacy. The charges against Hirsch were later dismissed under an agreement worked out that saw him pay a $500 fine and complete 40 hours of community service. The charges against the second former employee were also dismissed

Several newspapers reported on the charges, and some reported the eventual dismissal. Hirsch applied for several jobs with Parks and Recreation Departments in other municipalities, but claimed he was unable to find work due to the negative publicity from his experience in Saco. He now works at a school cafeteria and at a home improvement store.

Hirsch is looking to have Saco reinstate him as Parks and Recreation director, is seeking an order to provide a name-clearing hearing, provide civil rights training for city administration,  supervisory and human resources staff in the requirements of procedural due process and state law governing removal of municipal officers and employees, send a letter to all city employees advising them of the judgement, award the plaintiff back pay for lost wages and benefits compensatory damages, and costs and attorney’s fees.  The suit says Hirsch is seeking  punitive damages “solely against Sutherland and not against the city of Saco.”

Hirsch is also asking the court to order the city to provide him with a complete copy of his personnel file and a written statement of the reasons for his termination — something the suit alleges he has repeatedly asked of the city, but not received.

The suit was filed on his behalf by attorneys Shelby Leighton and David Webbert of Johnson, Webbert & Garvan, LLP.

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