To Jeff Monsour, the federal court jury verdict in his favor late last month wasn’t as significant for him as it was for those who may want to come forward to report misconduct by state agencies or employees.
The Lake Luzerne resident beat the state in a trial that focused on whether the state violated his constitutional rights and illegally retaliated against him for reporting abuse and misconduct within the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, the agency for which he works.
The jury awarded him $1, but the money was far from the point for Monsour. Instead, he and his counsel believe the jury’s decision was a first of its kind in New York and will allow whistleblowers like him to have the confidence to come forward with less fear of retribution.
“The bottom line is, because of this, now other people can come forward,” he said. “We had to win, we really had to win. This could affect millions of disabled people across the United States.”
Monsour is an 18-year employee of the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities and began speaking out about his concerns at the homes where he worked starting in 2006. His efforts picked up after a 2009 fire that killed four residents of an agency group home in Hamilton County, a fire that came after Monsour expressed concerns about agency fire alarm evacuation procedures and falsified fire drill records.
He later brought forward numerous complaints of “abuse and waste,” claims such as the agency having sought reimbursement for client services that weren’t rendered, poor water quality at a group home in Saratoga County, possible radon gas exposure at another home and concerns that employees weren’t being properly trained in use of physical force and other policies.
He also expressed concerns about an agency decision to allow developmentally disabled sex offenders from a group home to attend a 2012 Halloween party at Six Flags Great Escape, which seemed to violate policies that at least some of the offenders have no contact with children.
Monsour testified at a June 2011 state legislative hearing on issues raised in a series of New York Times articles about his concerns and those of others about the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities.
After he spoke out, he said he was falsely accused of abuse, suspended without pay for no reason, denied promotions and “disparaged and marginalized.”
Monsour said he has continued to face retaliation since his lawsuit was filed. He said he has been made to follow different procedures than his co-workers, been denied use of a bathroom at an agency home, which other employees use, and been re-assigned.
Monsour said he has faced three false workplace complaints just since July 2015 and was transferred from one workplace to another after complaining about a client having inappropriate contact with a dog.
Nonetheless, he continues to speak up about care and supervision issues within the agency and he says that won’t change.
“If people knew the things the state is doing, they would be sick,” he said.
Michael Carey, a watchdog for the disabled through the Jonathan Carey Foundation, named after his late son who died at the hands of caregivers at a group home, called Monsour an “absolute hero and champion for the disabled.” Monsour stood up to the state and advocated for residents of the homes where he has worked, Carey said.
“He has brought out major systemic failures,” Carey said. “The state needs to understand they can’t keep walking over people and retaliating against them.”
Carey said the lawsuit victory will help spur legislation and policies to better protect whistleblowers.
The case almost never made it to court.
Monsour searched around the region for months for a lawyer who would take his case, not finding one until he made contact with Robert Sadowski of New York City, a former federal prosecutor who Monsour praised for his “brilliant” work and dogged determination.
Sadowski took the case on a contingency basis, so Monsour has not paid him. Instead, he has filed a motion to have the state pay the legal fees, which Monsour said are in the “high six figures.”
A hearing on that issue is set for Jan. 18 in U.S. District Court.
The state can appeal the verdict, but has not said whether it will.
Denise Decarlo, a spokeswoman for the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, said the agency had no comment on the case as of Tuesday.
“We are reviewing the court’s decision to determine if any further action is needed and cannot comment on ongoing litigation,” she said.