One Member’s Bias Can Taint a Government Vote

Maine Law Court Issues an Important Employment Discrimination Case

In Walsh v. Town of Millinocket, 2011 ME 99, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court (Alexander, J.) held that the discriminatory animus of one member of the board of selectmen was sufficient to permit the jury to find that the town had retaliated against its former recreation director.

The recreation director complained to the town manager that the town’s snowmobile trails were not being properly maintained by the local snowmobile club, which the town had contracted with for trail maintenance.  The club president was a member of the board of selectmen and was admittedly, for purposes of this case, biased against the recreation director and had a discriminatory motive against her for blowing the whistle on the club’s failures.  The board of selectmen voted 4-3 to eliminate her position and contract with someone else.  The selectman who was conceded to be motivated by retaliatory animus voted in the majority and thus was the deciding vote, as without his vote it would have been a 3-3 tie resulting in no action.

The issue was whether proof of his animus alone was sufficient to prove “but for” causation as against the town.  The court held it was, and would have been even if he had not been the fourth vote in the majority, because the jury could have found that the animus of one member was a “motivating factor” or “substantial factor” in the overall decision by the board of selectmen and that the elimination of the plaintiff’s job would not have occurred but for the discriminatory animus of one member.  Even if his vote had not been decisive, the court said, the jury could have found that his animus “may have” influenced the others.  Thus, had the vote been 5-2, the jury still could have found against the town.

To learn more about this case or if you have questions, contact Bryan M. Dench, who prepared this summary.