Fernald firings illegal

4 win $3.6 million from site manager


BY MIKE GALLAGHER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Four people who were fired from Fernald in 1993 during a workforce downsizing by the company managing the site were awarded a total of $3.6 million for age discrimination and breach of contract Thursday by a federal jury.

All four men sued their employers - Fernald Environmental Restoration Management Co. (FERMCO) and its parent company, Fluor Corp. of Irvine, Calif. - claiming the companies fired them while still retaining, or later hiring, less-qualified people.

Two of the men also claimed they were fired because of age discrimination.

A six-woman, two-man jury announced its verdict Thursday after two days of deliberation. Trial began July 22 before U.S. District Judge Herman J. Weber in Cincinnati.

The four plaintiffs are:

Robert J. Skalka, 57, of Springdale, a former manager of remedial support operations. The jury found he was the victim of ''willful age discrimination'' and breach of contract and awarded him $1,730,220.

William Ponsock, 51, of Lawrenceburg, former graphic artist. The jury upheld his breach of contract claim and awarded him $142,000.

Charles D. Conover, 50, of Western Hills, a former supervisor of procurement. He sued Fluor - FERMCO for age discrimination and breach of contract and was awarded $1,546,022.

Joseph Balnites, 56, a former senior accountant who died May 10 but had his lawsuit continued by his wife, Sharyn Balnites of Columbus. He was awarded $208,000 for breach of contract.

The lawyer representing the men, Randolph H. Freking, said:

''We are happy with the results. I hope it sends a message to (Fluor - FERMCO) that even in times of alleged economic uncertainty, that all employers should treat long service and well-qualified employees as they deserve to be treated. Economic layoffs should not be used as an excuse to get rid of older workers.''

FERMCO spokesman Rick Maslin said, ''We don't think the evidence in the case supports the verdict, and we are confident it will be overturned.''

FERMCO was awarded a five-year, $2 billion contract from the U.S. Department of Energy in 1,050-acre former uranium-processing plant.

The four men were fired by Fluor - FERMCO on Aug. 9, 1993. The jury found that despite Fluor - FERMCO's claims that they terminated the jobs to reduce the workforce, FERMCO then filled the slots with younger and less-qualified people. FERMCO said it used the results of an ''employee ranking system'' to determine who should be terminated.

During the trial, Mr. Freking used a recent report by the Energy Department's inspector general that bolstered the men's claim that the 1993 workforce downsizing by Fluor - FERMCO was a sham because the company quickly filled most of the slots formerly held by workers they fired.

Published Aug. 9, 1996.