LIHUE — A Fifth Circuit Court judge on Wednesday dismissed a lawsuit brought by a former firefighter, alleging his supervisors in the Kauai Fire Department threatened and retaliated against him for testifying about their alleged misconduct.
Myles Emura, a former officer in the KFD’s Ocean Safety Bureau, filed a civil suit against his employer in 2012, claiming his supervisors began harassing him shortly after he was called before the Kauai County Board of Ethics to testify about allegations that his fellow firefighters were using the department’s equipment to run their own private business.
According to Emura, when his two immediate supervisors found out about his testimony they started filing complaints and writing him up for “every little thing.” Emura said he was subjected to frequent drug tests and claimed one of the supervisors told coworkers Emura had “stabbed him in the back” and planned to quit scheduling him for overtime.
The lawsuit says Emura developed a stress-related disability due to the hostile workplace environment, which forced him to file a workers compensation claim and take a leave of absence, which ultimately led to his termination from the department a year later.
In an interview Thursday, Emura said he decided to sue the KFD and his supervisors after attempts to resolve the issue in-house failed. The Hawaii Government Employees Association refused to pursue Emura’s dispute with KFD leadership through arbitration, and inquiries into the matter of misappropriated KFD resources turned up nothing substantial.
An internal KFD investigation into the allegations of firefighter misconduct found no wrongdoing on behalf of its employees, and the county ethics board reached a similar conclusion.
Emura maintains that both investigations were questionable at best and said the ethics board’s inquiries consisted of nothing more than a handful of interviews with the firefighters involved.
A separate, nearly-identical lawsuit was filed in 2014 by Carl Ragasa, a former coworker of Emura’s, who sued the department and his supervisors in federal court, alleging he was the target of “a campaign of retaliatory harassment.”
Ragasa also claimed he was subjected to retaliation after reporting misconduct by the same two KFD supervisors named in Emura’s lawsuit, alleging they used KFD equipment to run their side business, stole gas from the department, used drugs on the job and falsified time sheets. That case was ultimately settled before trial for an undisclosed amount in 2016.
Emura’s civil claim, although filed two years prior to Ragasa’s, languished in Kauai’s Fifth Circuit Court for years. According to Emura, the case was delayed in part by his own attorney, who he said was less than enthusiastic and abandoned him entirely five years into pretrial litigation.
Court hearings were further set back by a dispute between Emura and the government employees union over its refusal to pursue his grievance, claiming the union did not fairly conduct an investigation into the matter. The Hawaii Labor Relations Board approved Emura’s workers compensation claim but later dismissed Emura’s complaint against the union.
At Wednesday’s court hearing, Emura’s attorney, John Murphy, attempted to convince the judge that his client deserved to have his case heard at trial.
“I’m saying that all the evidence in the record shows that an employer threatened an employee regarding the terms, conditions and privileges of his employment,” Murphy said, citing the relevant state statute protecting workers from retaliation.
Kauai’s deputy county attorney, Adam Roversi, described Emura’s retaliation claims as “petty disagreements” and said the allegations, even if true, “simply do not rise to the level” of workplace disputes covered by the Whistleblower Protection Act, a federal law the protects workers who speak out against misconduct by their employers.
Roversi called Emura’s allegations regarding threats of decreased overtime into question, pointing out that Emura continued to receive a substantial amount of overtime during the period in which he claims to have been suffering retaliation.
Murphy argued that it didn’t matter whether the threat was carried out or not, citing case law showing that the threat itself was enough to create a stressful workplace environment.
“So over the course of his lifetime, we have an expert who came up with the calculation that it cost him $200,000 that he would have made had he gone on and retired at his normal time,” Murphy said, explaining that his client’s work injury was “a direct result” of the retaliation.
“And I can’t see anybody seeing it any other way,” Murphy said.
Fifth Circuit Judge Kathleen Watanabe saw it another way. She granted the county’s motion for summary judgment against Emura, dismissing the lawsuit and finally putting an end to a case that had dragged on for nearly seven years.
Emura, now retired, said he is considering appealing the court’s decision but doubts he can afford to pay an attorney to take on his case.
Caleb Loehrer, staff writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.