Former Westfield State President Dobelle offers to settle wrongful termination suit; university says no

Last modified: Monday, June 30, 2014
SPRINGFIELD — Former Westfield State University president Evan S. Dobelle is interested in settling with the state and university officials he sued last year, his attorney said in court Wednesday, while the defendants’ lawyer said they will not consider it at this time.

U.S. District Judge Kenneth P. Neiman said he would not force the two sides into mediation and instead gave them until Dec. 12 to collect information and depositions for the federal suit.

Dobelle alleges in his Oct. 24 suit that after an audit of his travel expenses and other spending became public in spring 2013, university trustees and the state’s higher education commissioner forced him out of his job, violated his civil rights and defamed him, among other claims.

Dobelle is seeking $1.68 million in lost wages. In court documents filed June 4, Dobelle’s attorney, Ross H. Garber, states that is the amount Dobelle would have earned at his annual salary of $240,920 if he had continued working at Westfield State until his planned retirement age of 75. The former president is also asking for attorney’s fees and costs, nominal damages, and interest on all damages awarded.

In April, after hearing a motion to dismiss from the defendants, Neiman ruled that the university’s law and accounting firms would not be included in the lawsuit as Dobelle filed it. The remaining defendants are university trustees John Flynn III, Elizabeth D. Scheibel and Kevin R. Queenin, and Commissioner of Higher Education Richard M. Freeland.

Dobelle’s spending habits were made public last summer, revealing that hundreds of thousands of dollars from the university’s foundation were spent on travel, expensive dinners, concert tickets, limousine rides and other luxuries for himself and other college officials. The state attorney general’s and inspector general’s offices are both conducting their own investigations into Dobelle’s spending to determine if state funds were misused.

Dobelle, 69, of Pittsfield, filed suit days after the university’s board of trustees voted at a marathon meeting Oct. 16 to put him on paid administrative for 30 days amid the concerns about his spending. He alleges that the board members violated the law and his rights in commissioning the study of his spending, and that they and Freeland essentially forced him to resign from his job.

Dobelle also filed another suit in Hampden Superior Court in December that alleges breach of contract and seeks to have the university pay his legal fees following the audit.

In court Wednesday, Jeffrey T. Collins, an assistant attorney general representing the university trustees and Freeland, said he would likely seek a summary judgment later this year.

Neiman asked the attorneys if they were willing to mediate a settlement. Garber said his client was interested in mediation, but Collins explained that his clients could not consider it until the fact-finding discovery period was over.

“We are in the infancy of this case,” Collins told Neiman. “To say, ‘Sure, we’ll go to mediation,’ and have that mean anything, it’s clear to us that there is a whole lot more we need to learn first.”

Garber pushed for a shorter discovery period, saying that the university has already provided stacks of documents and records for the state investigations and Dobelle’s lawsuit in Hampden Superior Court, so they should be at hand. “There is a lot of overlap,” he said.

Both parties filed disclosures June 4 listing the people from whom they expect to request information and the documents they will seek. Dobelle’s filing lists 80 people, including professors, administrators, trustees, and state officials up to Gov. Deval Patrick. Garber indicated he will seek documents including communication between board members and Freeland and a March 2013 memo from WSU attorney Mark Peters informing Dobelle that someone had leaked his spending records.

Collins, filing on behalf of the four defendants, named 23 people in his filing, including Dobelle’s wife, Edith, son, Harry, his former assistant, Nanci Salvidio, and university interim president Elizabeth Preston. Among other documents, Collins will seek information about Dobelle’s travel, “so-called fundraising efforts” while at WSU, and his former dealings with the University of Hawaii, from which he was fired in 2004 over his allegedly lavish spending habits.

The two sides are due back in court Dec. 16 at 2 p.m. No date has been set for a trial. Judge Neiman said Wednesday that he is retiring in January, so another judge will take over the case at that point.

In an interview at the Gazette in May, Elizabeth Preston said the university had spent about $1.26 million from its reserve funds to deal with the lawsuits from Dobelle. She said they do not expect the costs to exceed $1.5 million.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.