Wrongful termination could cost taxpayers $325K

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A state Department of Education administrator in Hilo is set to receive $325,000 to settle a wrongful termination case against the state.

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A state Department of Education administrator in Hilo is set to receive $325,000 to settle a wrongful termination case against the state.

The settlement money for Ross Nishi, a DOE personnel regional officer, is contained in an amendment to House Bill 896, which appropriates funds for settlement of claims against the state, its officers and employees.

The state Attorney General’s office is recommending legislative approval of the settlement funds.

The measure, which moved from the House to the Senate earlier this month, was passed Friday by the Senate Judiciary and Labor Committee. It has one more committee hurdle to clear, the Ways and Means Committee, which hadn’t scheduled a hearing as of Monday, but has until April 10 to do so.

Ted Hong, Nishi’s attorney, said Friday his client was “terminated for improperly accessing the Hawaii criminal justice database … for a personal reason.” Hong said Nishi went through an internal DOE appeals process “because he’s not a collective bargaining (union) employee.”

Nishi was fired by the DOE on Dec. 1, 2008. According to a document filed by the attorney general, a DOE hearings officer overturned Nishi’s dismissal on appeal, but the DOE never received the decision.

“The hearings officer found that there was no just or proper cause to terminate him, overturned it, and then she was terminated the next day,” Hong said.

A second hearings officer upheld Nishi’s firing.

The state Board of Education then upheld the DOE’s discharge of Nishi.

Nishi sued in Honolulu Circuit Court, which ordered him reinstated with back pay and benefits. The DOE appealed to the Intermediate Court of Appeals, which vacated the judgment and sent the case back to the circuit court with instructions to remand the case to the BOE.

The BOE reinstated Nishi on May 8, 2014, but didn’t address the issue of back pay and benefits. Nishi appealed the decision to reinstate him without compensation in Honolulu Circuit Court. The appeal is on hold pending the settlement.

“It’s taken a long time to resolve for less money than he deserves,” Hong said. “If the department heads had been following their responsibilities, this would have been settled for a lot less — I mean, exponentially, a lot less.”

Brian De Lima, the BOE vice chairman and Hawaii Island member, said Monday the makeup of the board had changed between its original vote which upheld Nishi’s discharge and last year’s vote reinstating him.

“The Board of Education made a determination that … based upon the hearing processes, he should not have been terminated by the department, and he could be reinstated immediately, and I agreed with that,” De Lima said.

Hong said in the five-plus years Nishi fought his dismissal, Nishi’s wife became ill with cancer. He added Nishi’s back pay and benefits total “almost $500,000,” but his client is settling in an attempt to regain financial stability.

“Had they reinstated him, it would have cost them a couple of grand,” he said. “Instead, it took them … years, and him (Nishi) almost going into bankruptcy. He couldn’t even get a job. He had to clean houses for awhile.” De Lima said the BOE didn’t take part in the settlement process.

“The settlement itself is between the department and Mr. Nishi, … and I’m certain that no one is fully satisfied by the outcome,” he said. “But I’m not privy to the numbers and it didn’t come before the board for approval.”

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A DOE spokesman said in an email Monday the department is “unable to comment on pending legal matters.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett @hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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