A former Montrose County Road and Bridge employee filed suit in U.S. District Court Tuesday, alleging he was fired unceremoniously for contacting Commissioner Sue Hansen with concerns over a bridge project and the mask mandate in Montrose County for COVID-19.
Because Johnathan Goodman raised the concerns on his day off, not as part of his job, and reached out to his elected representative as a concerned citizen, yet was fired “with no cause, let alone good cause,” Montrose County violated his First Amendment rights to free speech and to petition his government, the complaint says.
Goodman is seeking damages as well as compensation for pain and anguish.
The suit names the county, Hansen, Montrose County Engineer Keith Laube and Montrose County Human Assistant Resources Director Leslie Quon in individual and official capacities.
“The complaint is being reviewed by legal counsel at this time,” the county said in a statement.
A formal response is pending.
“The main point of the lawsuit is the constitution protects whistleblowers who raise issues from being fired by the government just because they don’t like what they’re talking about. That’s exactly what happened here,” Goodman’s attorney Andy McNulty said.
The filing alleges Goodman, whose employment record as an equipment operator was solid, was fired in retaliation for bringing up “the possibility of significant corruption in the awarding of road contracts and definite government waste in the road budget in Montrose County.”
Additionally, the complaint says he asked Hansen, who the suit says was a member of the governor’s task force concerning the mandate, to “reconsider her stance on the statewide mask mandate.”
The complaint does not specify what Goodman believes Hansen’s stance was.
McNulty said what is relevant is that his client was raising concerns to his government. “The First Amendment protects your right to call your elected representative and complain. You shouldn’t lose your job just because you called our elected representative. That’s the bottom line,” he said.
According to the lawsuit, Goodman called Hansen July 17, 2020 to raise concerns as a private, taxpaying citizen. Hansen directed Goodman’s questions about enforcing the mandate to the sheriff’s office, the filing says.
Goodman then brought up a $750,000 bridge replacement in Cimarron, telling Hansen that among other concerns, the costly replacement did not fix underlying issues. The complaint does not specify those issues.
McNulty said Goodman believes the way the repairs were done wasted government dollars, plus he questioned whether the contract had been based on favors, since it wasn’t based on fixing the underlying issues.
“There’s a saying, where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” McNulty said, calling what happened to his client suspicious.
“Mr. Goodman raised these issues because of his concern that both of these projects were fraud on the taxpayer, constituted waste by the government and that there was possible corruption in the award of these contracts,” Nulty wrote in the complaint.
“Mr. Goodman told Hansen as much and relayed … that she seemed to have given both of these projects no oversight.”
Hansen reportedly told Goodman to gather evidence and get back to her.
On July 21, 2020, Goodman was called to his supervisor’s office, where Laube and Quon terminated him without giving a reason, per the complaint.
Goodman had risen steadily through the ranks at road and bridge since his 2016 hire, earning raises and had been named for a promotion that ultimately was put on hold because of the pandemic, the lawsuit states. On July 17 of last year, when he called Hansen with his concerns, Goodman was engaged in protected speech and was not acting pursuant to his official duties. Nor was his speech disruptive, McNulty wrote.
“Defendants would not have terminated (Goodman) if he had not engaged in First Amendment-protected conduct. Defendants’ termination of (Goodman) was substantially motivated by his First Amendment protected activity,” the freedom of speech violation claim states.
Further, the county’s alleged actions “can be expected to chill” another person from also engaging in activity protected under the First Amendment.
“Defendants’ actions were a content-based and/or viewpoint-based restriction of plaintiff’s expression,” the document further contends.
Hansen, Laube and Quon should have reasonably known Goodman had a clearly established constitutional right to speak in the manner he did, but disregarded those rights in a manner that was reckless and retaliatory, Goodman alleges through the lawsuit.
The complaint makes a similar argument for Goodman’s right to petition claim and states he was engaged in conduct protected under the First Amendment by petitioning Hansen, an elected representative.
The county defendants’ actions or inactions intentionally deprived Goodman of his rights, McNulty argued.
The complaint appears to be pending in the federal court system, where it had not officially shown up in available online records as of Tuesday afternoon, but the copy sent to the Montrose Daily Press is date-stamped March 30. The county’s answer is not yet due.
Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.