By Jane Smith
A former Delray Beach water quality inspector, who was reorganized out of her job in January, has filed a federal lawsuit against the city, the city manager and the Utilities Department director.
Christine Ferrigan, who received Florida whistleblower protection in September 2020 from Palm Beach County’s inspector general for her reclaimed water information, said she was let go in January — five days after she filed a written retaliation complaint against two of her Utilities Department supervisors.
The city, though, has another reason. City Manager Terrence Moore said in January that Ferrigan’s position was eliminated in a reorganization “done for efficiency and austerity reasons.”
This is Ferrigan’s second legal action against the city this year and the first one against the city manager and utilities director. The city declined to comment about the suit, which was filed July 25.
“The City is unable to provide information on matters that are under litigation,” wrote Laurie Menekou in a July 27 email response to The Coastal Star. Menekou is the outside spokeswoman on matters concerning the Delray Beach reclaimed water system.
In Ferrigan’s lawsuit, she alleges her U.S. and Florida constitutional rights were violated. She is seeking back pay, a promotion similar to the ones she had applied for but was not selected, and compensatory damages against the three defendants. She’s also seeking punitive damages against Moore and Utilities Director Hassan Hadjimiry “for her pain, emotional and mental suffering, stress, humiliation and reputational harm.”
Her first legal action, a complaint filed in April with the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, named only the city. It also asked for her son to be reinstated with back pay to his position in the Public Works Department, from which it said he was fired March 2 in retaliation against Ferrigan.
Though her son’s name was not mentioned in the suit, the only male to be fired that week was Cody Moss, who had been a parts expediter in the Fleet Division of Public Works, according to information the city provided The Coastal Star. He also shared a home address with Ferrigan.
Moss, who was hired in May 2021, ran afoul of his supervisors over ordering parts electronically instead of over the telephone, the department’s preferred method, according to written reprimands dating back to December in his personnel file. Moss was still in his probationary period at the time he was fired.
One of Ferrigan’s attorneys, Ezra Bronstein, described the difference between the two legal actions as “strategic.”
The available remedies from OSHA are for violations of environmental law, Bronstein said, not of Ferrigan’s constitutional rights.
“Ferrigan is the type of person the whistleblower law was designed to protect,” Bronstein said. “She was raising the red flag about the treated wastewater in the drinking water. ... And then they had her train her replacements.”
Since December, Delray Beach is operating under a five-year consent order, an agreement with the state Department of Health stemming from the city’s reclaimed water problems.
On Dec. 7, the city hand-delivered a check to the Health Department, as required in the consent order. The check covered a $1 million civil fine and $21,193.90 for costs and expenses of the Health Department’s investigation.
The Health Department began looking into the city’s reclaimed water system in January 2020, when a South Ocean Boulevard resident called to say she was not properly informed of a cross connection found on her street in December 2018. A cross connection occurs when reclaimed water pipes carrying highly treated wastewater used for lawn irrigation are wrongly connected to the drinking water lines.
After the Health Department became involved, the city spent more than $1 million on inspections and adding missing backflow preventers to stop the reclaimed water from mixing with drinking water. The city’s reclaimed water program began in 2008.
Ferrigan, hired in June 2017, claims she ran afoul of city management because of the information she supplied to the Health Department during its investigation. That included information about illnesses potentially linked to the cross connections.
However, an investigation by the Palm Beach County Office of Inspector General completed in May 2021, done at the request of the Health Department, was not able to link the illnesses of the South Ocean Boulevard residents to the reclaimed water.
This is Ferrigan’s second whistleblower battle with a South County coastal city.
She claimed whistleblower status in 2008 after she was fired from Boca Raton’s water department. She sued the city over the firing.
Ferrigan received $322,500 and her attorneys $215,000 in a settlement with Boca Raton’s insurance company in 2014 the day before the trial was to start. The city did not admit any wrongdoing.