A jury trial has been requested by two former Cochise College employees who allege they were let go in June 2019 just days before they planned to present information to the district governing board about years of mismanagement of the aviation program which was reporting sustained annual losses of more than $1 million.
John Michael Kehoe and Robert Michael Kirk name the college, the college district governing board, and three top college officials as defendants in the wrongful termination and age discrimination lawsuit recently filed in Cochise County Superior Court. The named officials are J.D. Rottweiler, College President; Wendy Davis, Vice President of Administration; and Verlyn Fink, Vice President of Instruction.
According to the lawsuit, Kirk was hired in May 2016 to work with the college’s aviation department flight simulation program. In January 2018, Kehoe became the college’s chief flight Instructor until he was asked in April 2018 to also serve as airport manager and director of the aviation department after the then-director left the college.
Eventually Kirk assumed some of the Kehoe’s flight instructor duties, purportedly with the approval of Fick. The men say they had Fick’s approval for plans to make the previously debt-laden aviation program profitable, but their employment was unexpectedly ended in June 2019, shortly before a scheduled meeting at which they intended to meet with the governing board about the program’s fiscal problems.
“The information that Mr. Kehoe would have presented to the Cochise County Community College District Governing Board would have inevitably shown that the college administrators, Mr. Rottweiler, Mr. Fick, and Ms. Davis, had for about the past ten years mismanaged the finances, grossly wasted the Cochise College monies and abused their authority by doing so, which had caused the massive annual deficit of approximately 1.3 million (dollars) per year from the aviation program,” the lawsuit states.
But days before that meeting, Kehoe, then 76, and Kirk, then 64, allege they were informed they had “self-separated” from college employment on June 28, 2019 by failing to sign new annual contract by 5 p.m. that date.
“Mr. Kehoe gave his annual contract to Verlyn Fick, who was his supervisor, for correction of errors and was told that he would be notified when the corrections were made,” the lawsuit alleges, noting Kehoe was never provided with a revised version.
Kirk claims he never even received a contract to sign. However, but both men received voicemails from Davis shortly after 5p.m. advising their employment had ended.
“Mr. Kehoe and Mr. Kirk both made their positions clear–that they had no intention of terminating their employment with Cochise College,” the lawsuit states, but they were later informed that the contracts had been withdrawn by the college.
Kehoe’s existing contract did not expire for two days, but the lawsuit states he was “escorted off the property and not allowed to access his office” on June 29.
The lawsuit also includes an intentional infliction of emotional distress count which alleges one or more defendants retaliated against the men for drawing attention to the aviation program’s “gross mismanagement and fiscal irresponsibility”, and knowingly engaged in conduct “that was outrageous and extreme, with the knowledge that it would cause severe emotional distress for the Plaintiffs.”
Kehoe and Kirk are seeking lost earnings, attorney’s fees, and compensatory damages. They also intend to ask a jury to award punitive damages, which can be imposed as punishment against a party who is shown to have acted with “an evil mind” or engaged in willful and wanton conduct.
“Many of these actions rise well beyond all possible bounds of decency,” according to the lawsuit filed on behalf of Kehoe and Kirk by Ayala Law Office in Tucson. “Aggregated, Defendants’ conduct is indefensible as they knowingly leveraged all of their assets in an unintentional and successful effort to cause the Plaintiffs emotional distress.”
The lawsuit claims Kehoe and Kirk were replaced by much younger people who had previously resigned from the aviation program. Kehoe later presented details of his termination to the governing board, but insists they “chose to sanction the actions of Mr. Rottweiler, Mr. Fick, and Ms. Davis on behalf of Cochise College.”
Judge Laura Cardinal has been assigned to preside over the case. Each named defendant has 20 days after service to file an answer with the court, but a trial would likely not take place until late 2021 or early 2022 due to COVID-19 backlogs at the court.
As of Oct. 21, the Cochise College website lists the governing board members as Chairperson Don Hudgins, Secretary Dennis L. Nelson, and members David DiPeso, Tim Quinn, and Jane Strain.