Trial proceedings began this morning in the lawsuit filed by former University student Robert McGee against the University Board of Regents, claiming he was unfairly dismissed from a research position because he reported violations of safety policies.
McGee, 54, alleges he was fired from his position under Assistant Prof. Michael Hartman in the nuclear engineering and radiological sciences department after McGee reported Hartman for being “cavalier about laboratory safety.”
McGee claimed that by firing him, the University violated the Whistleblower Protection Act, which protects employees who report misconduct in the workplace. He is suing the University for compensation of the emotional damages he endured after being fired.
McGee’s attorney, Christine Green, began opening statements mid-morning by painting McGee as a hard-working man dedicated to furthering his education.
McGee, who holds both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University, worked as a radiation safety officer at Ford Motor Company before returning to the University full-time in August 2004 to study neutron radiology. To further his quest to become a professor, McGee became a pre-candidate for the Ph.D. program.
Hartman began his assistant professorship in fall 2007, the same year he hired McGee. McGee was assigned to complete the security systems for a neutron generator in the Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering Building on North Campus.
Green said McGee began to question Hartman’s care for safety when he began setting safety system deadlines so early they couldn’t be completed in time. Hartman would also occasionally bring his son, a minor at the time, into the lab to assist him, an act McGee thought was unsafe.
Hartman caused a problem with the laboratory’s neutron generator when he fired it up while McGee was out of town on Nov. 6, 2007. Green said that after the incident McGee expressed his concerns to two nuclear engineering and radiological sciences professors, James Holloway and John Lee.
Green said McGee observed Hartman and another graduate student pouring unknown chemicals down the drain of a recently installed stainless steel sink on Feb. 16, 2008. McGee had concerns about the chemicals going down the drain because he believed it might lead to a storm drain, though this proved not to be the case.
McGee said when he was assisting Hartman in another professor’s laboratory later that day, Hartman could have exposed them to Cesium 137 — a highly radioactive material. Though the potential source of Cesium was later proved to be inactive, when McGee asked Hartman if the source was off, Green said Hartman responded that he was didn’t know. McGee left the room immediately.
McGee made a complaint about Hartman’s laboratory safety to the University’s Radiation Safety Service, Green said. Two days later, Hartman terminated McGee of all his responsibilities in the lab.
David Masson, the attorney representing the University, used his opening statement to portray McGee in a different light.
Masson said McGee’s acceptance as a pre-candidate to the Ph.D. program in 2004 was debated at first, with concern about a history of incomplete grades and a GPA that did not fit department standards.
Masson said the worsening relationship between McGee and Hartman was rooted in McGee’s inability to finish tasks Hartman assigned him. Masson said Hartman permitted McGee to work only 10 hours per week in his position because McGee had received an incomplete in a winter 2005 class.
In early December 2007, Hartman expressed his desire not to renew McGee’s position in the laboratory, but McGee remained in the position for the winter semester after Hartman’s colleagues persuaded him to keep McGee.
After McGee sent multiple e-mails refusing to come in to work on the generator’s safety system despite a Feb. 25 deadline, Masson said Hartman decided the project would best be completed without McGee. At this point, Hartman e-mailed McGee to tell him he was relieved of his duties in the lab, though he would be paid for the rest of the semester.
Masson said Hartman was unaware of the safety complaints McGee had made about him at the time of McGee’s termination.
McGee began his testimony today, speaking of the amiable relationship he had with Hartman at the beginning of his employment.
“I appreciated him,” McGee said. “I thought we were working well together.”
But after Hartman’s failed attempt to start up the neutron generator in November, McGee said he began to have concerns about Hartman’s care for safety in the laboratory.
McGee said he couldn’t make several safety deadlines because the credit card Hartman gave him to make necessary purchases for the laboratory was denied multiple times.
McGee said he also had trouble meeting deadlines because he needed the fire marshal to approve several aspects of the laboratory’s construction.
McGee said Hartman’s strict deadline demands and refusal to schedule around McGee’s final exams was out of character for the relationship the two men had in the past.
“I had no idea where these demands were coming from,” McGee said.
Masson’s cross-examination of McGee is scheduled to take place tomorrow.
Six women and one man make up the jury that will determine the outcome of the case. Two of the jurors are University employees. Judge Archie Brown set the trial to last the rest of the week, with jury deliberations to occur either Friday or next Monday.