Former DPW Director Sues Taveras, Elorza & Others in Wrongful Termination Claim

Jul 21, 2015

Taveras giving an address during his time as mayor
Credit Ian Donnis / RIPR

Paul J. Thomas, who was fired in 2012 as Providence's director of public works, is suing Mayor Jorge Elorza, his predecessor, Angel Taveras, and City Council President Luis Aponte -- among others -- in a claim alleging he was let go because he refused to hire or promote two unqualified individuals.

"Said positions required prospective candidates for hire to meet minimum certification qualifications," according to a complaint filed in Superior Court. "Plaintiff [Thomas] was asked to hire said unqualified individuals because of their ethnic backgrounds. At the time, there were several qualified applicants of a different ethnic background that Plaintiff was asked to overlook in order to hire the specified unqualified applicants."

Elorza's spokesman, Evan England, said the city's Law Department is "reviewing the complaint and preparing their response, which is expected later this month."

Taveras did not immediately respond to messages. Aponte couldn't be reached for comment.

Thomas, of West Warwick, is being represented in the case by former West Warwick state Representative Timothy Williamson, who is a candidate for a vacant post as a district court judge. In 2014, Williamson was hired as a part-time legal adviser for the House Judiciary Committee.

Besides Elorza, Taveras, and Aponte, other defendants named in the suit are Providence's finance director, Lawrence Mancini; the city's human resources director, Sybil F. Bailey, "John Doe, Alias," and "Jane Doe, Alias." The suit asks for a jury trial.

Taveras, now a lawyer with Greenberg Traurig in Boston, is sued in his individual capacity, while Elorza, Bailey, and Elorza are sued in their official capacity. (The complaint does not specify the capacity in which Mancini is being sued.) Public officials are sometimes sued in an individual capacity in an attempt to deprive them of legal protection afforded for official acts.

No explanation was given when Thomas, a former nine-year DPW director in West Warwick, was fired in April 2012.

"The director of public works serves at the pleasure of the mayor," David Ortiz, now Elorza's communications director, told the Providence Journal at the time. "I can't comment on confidential personnel matters except to confirm that Mr. Thomas is no longer employed by the city."

A 2012 probe by WPRI-TV led to the firing of DPW fiscal adviser David Pontarelli, and revealed what investigative reporter Tim White called "a culture that lacks leadership and accountability."

The Journal reported that Thomas' appointment as Providence's DPW director was announced in July 2009 by then-Mayor David Cicilline, and that his salary in the job increased from $96,679 to about $102,000.

According to the claim filed by Thomas, he was "highly qualified for the position," and "had no disciplinary action at any time prior to his termination."

Williamson said he expects the case to move to discovery. He declined to get into detail on what evidence supports claims in the lawsuit, but said Thomas was pressured to advance two people who did not pass a written application at DPW. In reference to the Channel 12 investigation revealing problems at the DPW in 2012, Williamson said, "It appears the city was looking for a scapegoat."

The suit goes on to say that after Thomas refused to hire the requested individuals for DPW, he provided his employer with a note on April 7, 2012, saying he would be unable to work from April 6 to April 23. According to the suit, Thomas got a note from Bailey while he was on medical leave on or about April 9 asking him to come in for a meeting on April 10.

"On or about April 10, 2012, Plaintiff responded that he had a doctor's appointment and referred Bailey to his Physician's note regarding the medical leave from April 6th-April 23rd," the lawsuit reads. "Then on or about April 11, 2012, Plaintiff received correspondence from Bailey stating that Plaintiff was terminated."

This post has been updated.