Reprieve for town manager
Judge vacates damage award
After considering the issue for more than 18 months, a federal judge has vacated his previous order that held Mansfield Town Manager John D'Agostino personally responsible for $500,000 in damages, and jointly responsible with the town for another $300,000, to a former employee who claimed unfair treatment.
US District Court Judge Douglas Woodlock decided the damages awarded to former Mansfield Municipal Electric Department employee Kimberly Stoyle were excessive.
"I'm relieved, and I'm certain every town manager in the Commonwealth is relieved as well," D'Agostino said Monday, noting the judgment against him has opened the door on all town managers being held financially responsible in such cases.
"Maybe now I can move on with my life," said D'Agostino, who added that he is confident Stoyle will not be able to prove that he should be held personally liable.
Stoyle claimed D'Agostino made sexual remarks about her.
The judge has ordered a new trial to determine damages in the case. In his ruling, Woodlock gave Stoyle two options in her harassment suit against D'Agostino, the Mansfield Municipal Electric Department, and the selectmen.
Under one option, the trial would be limited to three issues: whether Stoyle's treatment by the town and D'Agostino rose to the level of "an adverse employment action"; whether D'Agostino should be held personally liable for damages; and whether Stoyle was acting as an employee or as a private citizen when she complained of financial mismanagement in the Electric Department. In such a trial, the judge has capped the maximum amount that can be awarded to Stoyle at $400,000 - half the original amount he granted.
Stoyle can also choose to start over with a new trial. She has been given until April 10 to make her decision. Neither she, nor her attorney, Lynn Leonard, returned calls for comment.
The town's attorney, Leonard Kesten, noted that Stoyle always has the option of reaching a settlement with the town.
The chairman of Mansfield's Board of Selectmen, Ann Baldwin, said she couldn't comment on Woodlock's ruling. "We've only talked about it in executive session," Baldwin said.
During the 2007 trial on complaints from Stoyle and former Electric Department manager Jack Beliveau, the jury found in favor of the pair. Beliveau claimed he was fired by D'Agostino in 2004 for backing Stoyle in a sexual-harassment complaint she filed against D'Agostino with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. That complaint did not go forward because of insufficient evidence.
Stoyle quit the Mansfield Electric Department in January 2005, about a year after Beliveau was fired, later filing the court suit saying she was driven out of her job.
Beliveau and Stoyle both claimed D'Agostino, the Electric Department, and the selectmen, in their role as the town's light commissioners, engaged in retaliatory behavior against them. Stoyle also believed she was treated unfairly because she had complained about some management practices in the department.
The town chose to settle with Beliveau for $1.6 million, which was paid from the Mansfield Municipal Electric Department's rainy day fund.
While the jury had made a recommendation for damages in the Stoyle case, Judge Woodlock set the damages himself. He lowered the jury's recommended amount against the town from $500,000 to $50,000 for punitive damages. He then made D'Agostino personally responsible for $500,000 in punitive damages, and jointly responsible with the town for $300,000 in compensatory damages.
Attorney Kesten noted, in his appeal of the judge's award, that the jury had not held D'Agostino personally responsible for damages, nor had Stoyle's attorney requested it.
Late last year, a majority of the selectmen voted not to renew D'Agostino's contract when it expires this fall. D'Agostino has been town manager in Mansfield for more than 12 years.
"This has hurt my chances for employment," D'Agostino said of all the stories on the harassment suit. "I've lost out on a number of employment opportunities already. Employers see the articles and I don't even get an interview. My prospects for employment have diminished severely."
D'Agostino added he hopes the judge's latest action will help reverse that trend.
Selectman Sandra Levine, who is among D'Agostino's supporters, believes the Stoyle and Beliveau complaints played a large part in her board's recent decision not to renew D'Agostino's contract. "But I can't prove that," she said.
Levine was relieved when she heard Woodlock's latest ruling. "I don't think there has ever been a case when one member of a defendant grouping was singled out to pay the damages," Levine said.
Regarding Levine's comment that the court cases played a large part in D'Agostino's demise in Mansfield, Baldwin said she was is sticking with the statement she made several months ago, when she, and other board members, voted not to renew D'Agostino's contract.
"In my original statement, I said that you don't have to give a reason based on his contract," Baldwin said. "The less said about this the better. John has said in the past he would sue the town."
Christine Legere can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: Because of an editing error, an April 2 article about Mansfield Town Manager John D'Agostino incorrectly described his opinion about a new trial regarding his treatment of a former employee. He said he does not believe the employee, Kimberly Stoyle, would be able to prove that her treatment by the town and D'Agostino constituted an "adverse employment action."