Judge rejects $225,000 award for blind Wis. vendor

AP News
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Posted: Nov 06, 2009 3:24 PM

The state of Wisconsin does not have to pay $225,000 to a blind businesswoman in a dispute over an Army dining contract, a federal judge ruled this week.

An arbitration panel had ordered the state to compensate Janet Dickey for income she lost after the Army canceled her contract to manage food service at Fort McCoy military base in western Wisconsin in 2006. There were problems with the quality of meals, and the panel blamed state officials for failing to oversee the contract as required by a federal law to promote work opportunities for the blind.

The case has been followed by advocates for the blind, one of whom who called last year's award unprecedented.

U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb threw out the award in a ruling dated Tuesday, saying states can't be required to pay damages under the federal law known as the Randolph-Sheppard Act. The law does not specifically authorize damages, and states are shielded from liability under the U.S. Constitution, she ruled.

Crabb did agree with the panel that the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development failed to oversee the contract as required. The ruling came in response to a state lawsuit seeking to overturn the panel's award.

Dickey's attorney, Lisa Goldman, said she would appeal the ruling on damages to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. She said it could be the first time that panel decides whether states can be ordered to pay damages under Randolph-Sheppard, which gives preference to blind vendors in awarding government contracts.

Gary Goyke, a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Council of the Blind and Visually Impaired, said it was disturbing the state could not be ordered to pay damages and he would push for a state law allowing them. Right now, he said, "harm is inflicted by the state or its agent and there are no consequences."

Under the law, the Army awarded the state a contract in 2003 to provide dining service to soldiers at Fort McCoy. The state hired Dickey and food service contractor Blackstone Consulting, Inc., to work together to manage the contract.

The Army canceled the contract in 2006 after numerous problems resulted in some soldiers missing meals and the dining facilities opening late.

The Army blamed a Department of Workforce Development official, Joseph D'Costa, for failing to implement an effective staffing and supervision plan. D'Costa, in turn, blamed the contractor and crumbling Army dining facilities for the problems, which the Army says have been largely fixed.

Dickey, who lives in Necedah, filed a grievance against D'Costa in his official capacity, and the arbitration panel ruled in her favor last year.

Goldman said Dickey lost "substantial income" after the Army canceled the contract. She is expected to earn $16,000 managing two rest areas in Juneau County this year, compared to nearly $300,000 running the Fort McCoy dining service in 2005, Goldman said.

"This is very unfortunate for her," she said. "She was doing what the program anticipated blind people should do. She should be commended for that."

Thousands of reserve and active military personnel from all branches receive training at Fort McCoy every year. The base has also served as the point of mobilization and demobilization for many troops who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.