Sonoma State University to pay $2.9 million in asbestos case
Faculty members and staff who worked in a Sonoma State University office building that was the focus of a whistleblower trial over asbestos mishandling will each get a piece of more than $2.9 million in penalties handed down for violations of occupational health and safety laws.
Those 231 who worked in Stevenson Hall during a two-year period ending in 2015 will split about a quarter of the penalty - or about $3,100 each - allotted last week by Judge Nancy Shaffer. State workplace enforcement and training regulators will get the rest.
Shaffer’s order comes on top of the $387,000 jury verdict awarded earlier in March to Thomas Sargent, a 24-year university employee who claimed he was forced from his job after raising concerns about asbestos in Stevenson Hall and other buildings. The jury found both Sargent’s immediate superior, Craig Dawson, and the California State University Board of Trustees liable in the case.
As part of Shaffer’s order, Sargent will be reinstated to his position as campus environmental health and safety specialist and receive about two years’ back pay.
“We are happy that between the judge and the jury, these violations have been exposed,” said Dustin Collier, an attorney for Sargent. “The university can no longer deny their existence. We are hopeful this will be a catalyst for change.”
In addition to the penalty, the university spent about $3.5 million in legal fees to take the case to trial, said Collier and his co-counsel, Joshua Socks.
“It was a colossal waste of taxpayer money to avoid cleaning asbestos,” Collier said.
President Judy Sakaki, appointed in 2016, did not return a call Tuesday seeking comment.
Toni Molle, a spokeswoman for the California State University system expressed disappointment, saying penalties for some violations were more than 100 times larger than fines that could have been assessed by state workplace safety regulators.
Molle said the university system would appeal.
“This is an area of the law that is unsettled and there are many unresolved issues that will need to be addressed by the Court of Appeal and possibly, the California Supreme Court,” Molle said in an email Tuesday. “We are optimistic that the appeal will be successful.”
Sargent’s claims shined a light on conditions in one of the university’s original buildings, named after 1960 presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson. He raised concerns that worn or crumbling floor and ceiling tiles in the three-story building were releasing carcinogenic asbestos fibers. When he reported it to superiors, they took insufficient steps to remedy the situation, he claimed.
Instead, Sargent claimed, his boss retaliated against him, subjecting him to a hostile working environment that left him with no choice but to quit.
He sued, alleging harassment and violations of California Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards.
Jurors heard about two months of testimony before finding in Sargent’s favor and awarding him $387,895 for mental suffering, emotional distress and lost compensation.
Shaffer ordered other penalties Thursday. About $725,000 was to be dispersed among the 231 teachers, administrative assistants and other university employees who worked in Stevenson Hall from May 2013 to March 2015.
Gina Voight, president of the CSU employees union at Sonoma State, said she hoped the penalty would prompt schools throughout the 23-campus system to reevaluate their handling of asbestos.
“We would like to see a better response from the university instead of denial and shutting us out,” Voight said. “They need to open doors and welcome change in these old buildings.”
You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-568-5312 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @ppayne.