RUMFORD — Nearly 10 months after former Town Manager Linda-Jean Briggs filed a federal lawsuit against the town and its five selectmen claiming her civil rights were violated when she was suspended and ultimately terminated without cause, the town has responded.

Following motions to dismiss and motions to extend time, the town filed its answer to Briggs’ complaint in U.S. District Court in mid-October, denying the wrongful termination, saying Briggs’ own “conduct was the sole or a contributing cause” to that action.

Briggs is seeking back pay for lost wages and benefits, forward pay for the unserved portion of her contract, plus damages and reimbursement of her attorney’s fees.

When she was terminated, according to court records, the town cut her a severance check for $40,999. She has not cashed the check.

Briggs was hired as Rumford’s town manager in June 2018 and signed a three-year contract with an annual salary of $82,000, with a 2% increase built into her first and second year anniversaries, with a potential for another 1% increase in the second year if she received a good evaluation from selectmen.

Under the terms of the contract, if terminated without cause, she is entitled to six months severance, or $41,000.

Selectmen Christopher Brennick, Michael Peter Chase, Mark N. Belanger, James Windover and James Theriault each signed the contract, and all five are named in Briggs’ lawsuit as defendants.

In response to a Freedom of Access Act request sent by the Sun Journal to Rumford in August seeking access to any disciplinary action taken against Briggs during her employment, acting Town Manager Scott Cole replied there were no disciplinary actions taken, and instead provided agendas and minutes of meetings held in late 2018 and early 2019 detailing public discussion and executive sessions about Briggs’ employment.

Briggs was suspended with pay on Dec. 14, 2018, by a vote of the board, and was terminated Jan. 2 by board vote based on the “no cause” termination clause in her contract.

At the start of the Dec. 14 emergency executive session, Briggs said she was given less than 24 hours notice and because she was the only person invited to the session to discuss a “personnel matter,” she knew the meeting was about her and asked the board to consider postponing until she could hire a lawyer. The board agreed to postpone a formal hearing, but voted to go into executive session to discuss her employment.

When selectmen emerged from that hourlong session, they voted to suspend Briggs with pay pending her hiring a lawyer to attend a hearing, according to meeting minutes.

Michael Peter Chase, who is vice chairman of the board, opposed the action, saying the town manager had not committed any crime or anything that warranted suspension, and that conflicts with the board were over communication issues “which can be worked on and rectified.” Chase said he didn’t feel the board was willing to work with Briggs to improve communications, and opposed her reprimand.

Police Chief Stacy Carter, who is retiring next month, spoke on Briggs’ behalf, arguing “she had gone above and beyond getting departments to work together, running very smoothly in her tenure. He went on to say that this is the first time in many years that the town is actually moving forward,” according to the meeting minutes, and urged the board to be cautious.

Five other people spoke in support of Briggs, including Peggy Collette, who said she thought losing Briggs would “be an incredible injustice to the town and this area.”

The board met three days later to appoint an interim town manager, selecting Carter for the post. Carter accepted it as a short-term appointment.

The board met Dec. 20 for what became a contentious meeting over Briggs’ employment.

At the start of the meeting, Briggs presented each selectman with a personal Christmas gift, for which she received a round of applause from the audience.

Former fire Chief Robert Chase was among the first to address the board, saying “for far too long, the Select Board in Rumford has been empowered to tell department heads how to run departments, to tell managers how to manage department heads who manage departments. That’s not your role. You cause harm and detriment to this town and our ability to progress.”

Chase, who is now a firefighter with the city of Auburn, praised Briggs’ performance and blamed the board for the conflict. “For God’s sake, this is the most dysfunctional organization, driven from the top down. Define your roles, stay in your lane and hire the right people to do the job you want them to do,” he said, to applause.

Former Selectman Jolene Lovejoy said she fears what businesses think about the town and its continued habit of hiring and firing town managers, and worries about permanent harm to its reputation. “I am not proud to be from Rumford and I’m not proud of how things are being run.”

Burt Dennis, another Briggs supporter, questioned the strength of any wrongdoing that led to the suspension. “Heck, if a simple breakdown in communication was the criteria for a suspension, I believe we would have at least three other town officials suspended here tonight,” he said.

Of the 20 or so people who spoke, 18 spoke in support of Briggs, imploring selectmen to reconsider their action to spare the town embarrassment and get work back on track.

Two weeks later, on Jan. 2 at the end of a 3½-hour executive session, the board voted 4-1 to terminate Briggs “without cause in accordance with her contract.”

Chase was opposed.

In Briggs’ complaint, she cites constitutional violations of due process and wrongful termination, and that after she appealed her suspension and termination on Jan. 8, following the procedure outlined in the town’s charter, that the Board of Appeals later voted it did not have jurisdiction to hear her appeal.

Briggs claims Rumford violated Maine law and the town’s charter, which both require that cause must be found for terminating a town manager, and that the town must file a preliminary resolution with the town clerk stating the specific reasons for termination before taking action. Town managers are required to receive notice of resolutions within 10 days, and have a right to request a public hearing. During this process, a manager’s salary may not be affected until the appeal is finalized, under state law.

Rumford’s response to these claims is that the language in Briggs’ lawsuit was not framed as allegations, but simple assertions of law, to which the town is not required to respond, and that defendants do not have enough information or knowledge to “form a belief as to the truth” of her allegations. The town denies violating Briggs’ employment rights, and asserts that the town and its board have “at all times acted in good faith and without knowledge that their conduct violated any clearly established constitutional or statutory rights of the plaintiff.”

Briggs also claims the town violated due process afforded her under state and federal constitutions, which the town denies.

Rumford and Briggs have each asked for trial by jury. The case will not go to trial until at least June 2020, according to court records.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to reflect Briggs was suspended with pay on Dec. 14.


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