Correction Appended: An earlier version of this story incorrectly classified a survey meter and dosimeter as radiation protection devices. They are radiation measurement devices.
A Washtenaw County jury ruled in favor of the University of Michigan Board of Regents yesterday in the Whistleblower’s lawsuit brought by Robert McGee, a former University research assistant.
McGee, 54, filed a lawsuit against the regents after he was terminated from his position as a research assistant in the Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences Department. McGee alleged that he was wrongfully removed from his position because he filed complaints about potential safety violations in the laboratory.
Throughout the case, Christine Green, McGee’s attorney, emphasized that the case falls under the Whistleblower Protection Act, which protects employees who report misconduct in the workplace. The seven-member jury found that while McGee did engage in activity protected under the act, he was not discriminated against in the termination.
Over the course of the trial, the defense tried to prove that McGee was an inadequate student and that the decision to terminate him from his position was made well before he reported the safety violations.
David Masson, the attorney for the University, declined to comment on the case, but University spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham said University officials were “very pleased” with the results of the trial.
“It clearly shows that Prof. Mike Hartman and the Nuclear Engineering Department acted properly,” she said.
Green declined to comment immediately following the trial. Calls to her home went unreturned yesterday evening.
McGee testified last Tuesday that he agreed to assist professor Michael Hartman install a safety door in Nuclear Engineering Prof. Kimberlee Kearfott’s laboratory on North Campus. Though Kearfott’s lab contains a source of Cesium 137, a highly radioactive isotope, McGee said he agreed to enter the lab because Hartman told him he had permission to do so and McGee trusted him.
The two didn’t use a survey meter or a dosimeter — radiation protection devices — while they were in the lab. McGee said Hartman asked McGee if he knew if the machine that contained the Cesium 137 was on or off. McGee said once he realized Hartman didn’t know he immediately left the lab.
McGee went home after the incident and contacted Joseph Miklos, an Occupational Safety and Environmental Health coordinator for the University. According to Miklos’ testimony on Thursday, he told McGee he couldn’t have been exposed to radiation.
But McGee said in his testimony that Miklos told him he didn’t know for sure if he had been exposed and suggested he contact Kearfott. McGee said when he contacted Kearfott she was upset at finding out that Hartman had entered the lab without permission.
Kearfott testified on Thursday that the system protecting the source of Cesium 137 wasn’t working correctly before the two men entered the lab, but the fact that it wasn’t working made it less likely that the men had been exposed to radiation.
McGee reported Hartman’s violations to Radiation Safety Services and claims he was terminated for doing so.
On Friday, Hartman testified that he planned to fire McGee long before the incident because he wasn’t fulfilling his job requirements. Hartman said he asked McGee to finish safety systems and shielding for a neuron generator by the end of fall 2007, but Hartman said he had to finish the job himself in September 2007.
He added that on Dec. 4 he e-mailed McGee with a list of things he wanted completed by the end of the year. He testified that two months later McGee had only completed two of the four tasks on the list.
After McGee failed to complete the tasks, Hartman said he contacted William Martin, chair of the Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences department, about firing McGee.
Hartman said Martin suggested he keep McGee on and proposed the department pay his salary for winter 2008. Hartman said he kept McGee on, but asked him to complete the safety system by Feb. 1.
After McGee consistently missed deadlines, Hartman said he sent McGee an e-mail on Feb. 19 with deadlines to complete assignments. When McGee didn’t respond, Hartman said he e-mailed McGee on Feb. 20 informing him of his termination, adding that he would be paid for the rest of the semester.