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"On my way to work yesterday, one of my coworkers was driving in front of me on the interstate. This coworker is a smoker. When they finished their cigarette, they flicked it out of the window. I continued following them (we were going the same place, obviously) and they repeated this action and threw another cigarette butt out the window.

When I arrived at the parking lot I asked this coworker if they could please not throw their cigarette butts out the window on the highway. The coworker responded that "they would do whatever they wanted and there was nothing that I could do to stop them." I mentioned that it was against the law to litter and that cigarette butts are bad for the environment and for general cleanliness, and that they have an ashtray in their car for a reason. The coworker told me to "fuck off".

I have not had many interactions with this coworker, they are in a different department and I have never talked to them other than in passing.

This coworker told HR that I have been "harassing them." I told HR my side of the story. Now they want me to come to a longer meeting, which I don't really know what is about.

Was I wrong to criticize my coworker for throwing a cigarette out of the car? Should I contact my lawyer? What should I do here? I'm really uncomfortable with this whole situation but I refuse to stand by and watch people have such disregard for common decency.

Relevant law: "2016 Minnesota Statutes - 169.42 LITTERING; DROPPING OBJECT ON VEHICLE; MISDEMEANOR.", The Office of the Revisor of Statutes

Subdivision 1.Objects on highway. No person shall throw, deposit, place, or dump, or cause to be thrown, deposited, placed, or dumped upon any street or highway or upon any public or privately owned land adjacent thereto without the owner's consent any snow, ice, glass bottle, glass, nails, tacks, wire, cans, garbage, swill, papers, ashes, cigarette filters, debris from fireworks, refuse, carcass of any dead animal, offal, trash or rubbish or any other form of offensive matter, or any other substance likely to injure any person, animal, or vehicle upon any such street or highway.

UPDATE AFTER THE MEETING:

The meeting has since come and gone. I think it would be helpful here to note three things. First, my employer is a privately owned company with between 500-1000 employees world wide. Secondly, in Minnesota, environmental awareness is an issue that receives quite amount of attention. Finally, on Friday before the meeting I was stuck in an elevator with our director of HR for about 30 minutes -- we obviously didn't discuss the issue -- our conversation was pleasant and about dog adoption (not sure how relevant this is all is, but I do want to paint as clear a picture of the outcome as possible).

Before the meeting, I sat down with my immediate supervisor and our department head and discussed the situation. Both of them told me that my worry was largely unfounded, and at worst it would be a slap on the wrist and a note in my file.

The meeting was attended by my boss, our director of HR and one HR associate. They asked me to again explain how the situation unfolded. I recounted to the best of my ability. They asked me why I thought it was a good idea to confront [coworker]. I responded along the lines of "I hoped mentioning it to them in private would be enough for them to reconsider this act."

I was then told that they found the accusation of harassment unwarranted, but that in the future I should tread very lightly in situations like this. They told me that if I observed an employee breaking a law off company property, the correct action is to report it to the authorities. They pointed out that had I not approached the coworker then none of this would have happened. They also told me that if a situation arises like this again, while there is nothing they can do legally to prevent me from escalating it with a confrontation or legal action, they would very much appreciate it if I did it in a way that would be difficult to involve the company.

I do not know how this issue was addressed with the coworker (nor do I care to investigate). I was told by a different colleague that the coworker has not been in the office this week.

TL;DR version: You're not in trouble, please handle this situation differently in the future (specifically in a way that doesn't involve us).

  • 267
    For what it is worth, a driver threw out a cigarette and it bounced and flew into my car, burned the back seat in my brand new car and started a serious fire. Flicking cigarettes may seem harmless, however, trying to pull of the freeway and putting out a fire in your back seat is damned serious. It cost me a ton to get the car fixed and took quite a while to calm down. It still bothers me after all these years. I cannot drive the car without thinking about the bad experience after 15+ years now. Thank you for speaking up! Please feel free to use this story when talking to HR. It may help. – closetnoc Nov 11 '16 at 21:25
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    Not super relevant, but thank you for making Minnesota a better place. :) We all thank you for sticking up for what's right. – sethmlarson Nov 14 '16 at 22:32
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    The TL;DR version is spot on. You caused someone to become defensive on company property; you should not have decided to introduce this confrontation on company property. You might be an ally of the environment but have presented yourself as a risk to company interests. – MonkeyZeus Nov 15 '16 at 17:00
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    @JonH - by definition, a polite and warranted request like this, done only once, is not harassment - it is neither rude, aggressive, nor repetitive. Obviously his HR department agreed it was not harassment. Your comment is completely off the mark. – AgapwIesu Nov 15 '16 at 22:11
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    You did the right thing. It cost you a little bit in terms of stress and hassle, but that is the nature of doing right. More often than not, it comes with a cost. Your only option would be to call the police and report the offender, but if I was him I would prefer you try talking to me first. But again, doing the right thing and treating people with respect often carries a cost, especially when the person you are trying to treat with respect is as rude and aggressive as this. – AgapwIesu Nov 15 '16 at 22:16

11 Answers 11

249

While I congratulate you for standing up for your beliefs, but it seems that you've entered a rather sticky situation. Clearly, this person is a bully, and I'm sorry to say that these sort of conflicts rarely end well for any of the people involved.

Right now the whole thing is a "he said, she said" situation. He went and complained to HR first, so unless they're very open minded, and objective people, this will more likely be a positive for them (we typically give credence to the first person to come forward). This will go very, very poorly for you if this person has friends in HR, or is otherwise politically "important".

The first thing I would do is notify your manager. Tell him or her exactly what happened, and very clearly outline how rude and verbally abusive this person was to you. Your manager will hopefully then go to bat for you, and at the very least provide a character reference for you with HR.

Another recommendation is not to offer any sort of apology when you haven't done anything wrong. You want to avoid creating an image of guilt. Don't say anything silly such as:

"I'm sorry you took it the wrong way, I didn't want to start a conflict"

It might seem like a polite way to start the conversation, but all you're doing is giving up the initiative. Call them out on being verbally abusive, and generally don't allow yourself to be backed into a corner is my advice.

For example, let's say that HR asks you to describe what happened:

"I witnessed X throwing cigarette butts out the window on the way to work yesterday morning. In the parking lot I approached him/her and politely asked that (s)he refrain from doing so in the future, as it is, in fact, against the law to litter. (S)He immediately became verbally aggressive, and told me to, and I quote, "fuck off". I now find myself sitting in this room, accused of abuse, which frankly I consider bullying at this point."

Note the key HR terms: aggressive and bullying. This will immediately flip the situation into a more serious one against them: lying to HR.

Realistically, this shouldn't go further than a slap on wrist for both of you. However, you don't know what this person has been telling HR, and worse, if (s)he really is such an aggressive a-hole, they might start some sort of rumor campaign against you in the company. Be sure to stand up to them, or prepare for possibly more bullying down the line.

  • 19
    I'd disagree with your first three paragraphs unless there is evidence of HR being incompetent but the rest of this advice is excellent. Simply stating the facts should be enough for everyone to realise that the coworker just reacted poorly and that the OP didn't actually do anything wrong. Assuming that HR appears receptive to that message I'd avoid trying to turn the tables on the coworker by mentioning bullying. – Lilienthal Nov 13 '16 at 17:33
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    Where do you get that the co-worker is a "bully"? Rude and offensive, certainly, but the OP was the aggressor in this case, whether in the right or not, and the co-worker's response was not disproportionate as vulgar as it may have been. – Michael J. Nov 14 '16 at 15:30
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    You might make clear that this is the only conversation you and the other party have ever had. That way the accusation of harassment is also clearly nonsense. Oh, and raise the potential that employees littering on the freeway could bring the company into disrepute if they are recognised. – Grimm The Opiner Nov 14 '16 at 15:46
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    @MichaelJ. using HR to stop someone from telling you to quit breaking the law I'm pretty sure falls under any definition of bullying you care to use. – Wayne Werner Nov 14 '16 at 22:46
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    @sgroves I'd hardly call a single interaction about littering "badgering", though it is entirely unrelated to work. Even if the OP actually said, "Hey a-hole, quit your littering, you jerk! You're killing the planet!" Unless the OP continued their litter-related interactions I have a hard time stretching that to badgering. Of course that might just be because I'm neither a smoker or a litterer, and I don't believe that littering is my flying-spaghetti-monster given right. – Wayne Werner Nov 16 '16 at 13:34
85

I am fairly confident that your narrative differs significantly from you co-worker's. HR is most probably still in investigation mode and sorting out the facts. Which is why you are being called in.

When you see your co-worker, don't act and speak like an accuser. Act and speak like a witness. You saw them do it, you intervened, they told you to fuck off. Stick to the facts. Don't editorialize. And don't act like you are the guilty party.

Most likely, HR is not going to say anything to the co-worker about their littering. You are the only witness, there is no corroborating evidence, it didn't happen on company premises and it's basically your word against theirs. Of course, if they confess that they did it ... Don't count on it.

HR is most interested in your co-worker's assertion that you harassed them. Make sure that you get a complete grasp of their assertion so that you can refute their assertion - It helps that you haven't talked to them since the incident. They have to detail what you did to harass them - you had an exchange of words regarding their conduct and that exchange of words was a one-off incident. You were non-confrontational and you walked away. Help HR settle your co-worker's accusation in your favor. Most likely, all HR wants to know whether your co-worker's assertion that you harassed them has any substance. To repeat myself: talk and act like a witness and not like an accuser. The more you act and talk like a witness, the less likely you're going to come across to HR as any kind of harasser.

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    OP's tone of voice might have been annoying to the smoker, hence the suggestion to sire offspring. Two cigarettes on the way to work means a heavy smoker, or someone who's under stress. – rath Nov 11 '16 at 15:54
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    This exchange is getting a bit long winded for comments. If we're going to discuss the philosophy of confrontation then we should move to a chat room. – user30031 Nov 11 '16 at 20:51
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Yes I agree it is against the law, but you don't have the authority to enforce the law and neither does HR. Some people are asserting you may have authority to enforce the law but I am going to go out on a limb here and suggest that is not a good option.

I think what you did was fine up to: "that they have an ashtray in their car for a reason". At that point you were mocking the person.

Just go to the meeting tell them you were expressing your opinion and felt you did so in a polite and non-harassing manner. Stay calm and keep your answers short and to the facts. Someone claimed harassment so HR needs to investigate.

Avoid engaging this person. Tell HR you are here to answer any questions they have.

Don't scold the person for being a litter bug nor even talk about how litter is bad. This is about you being accused of harassment on employer property.

  • 68
    Pointing out the law is not the same as "enforcing" it. – user30031 Nov 11 '16 at 21:19
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    "[Y]ou don't have the authority to enforce the law" -- Umm, yes, he does. This was a misdemeanor, committed in his presence, in the State of Minnesota. See Minnesota statute 629.37 -- every person has the authority in Minnesota to arrest a person for a felony or misdemeanor committed in their presence. The question cites the misdemeanor statute. – David Schwartz Nov 12 '16 at 20:22
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    Saying that you have an ashtray for a reason" is not mockery. It's mild sarcasm at most. – barbecue Nov 13 '16 at 21:04
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    @coburne Nobody has suggested that he do that. He would have been fully within his rights to do so, but obviously it's a bad idea. Firmly insisting that the illegal behavior stop is, IMO, the appropriate response. – David Schwartz Nov 14 '16 at 22:00
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    @DavidSchwartz No, they are allowed to do so when it is stated by someone with authority that they commited an misdemeanor or felony. You cannot arrest someone on your own. For example when someone is running from the Police you are legaly allowed to tackle the Person in question. However it remains an bad Idea. Helpfull would have been you reporting the "misdemeanor". – Raoul Mensink Nov 15 '16 at 12:03
14

At the meeting, say that while you disapprove of him illegally littering, for the sake of inter-employee relations you'll let it go and not bring it up again. Be firm, remind everyone there that this asshole is breaking the law (you have the moral high ground), and that politely reminding him to stop breaking the law does not constitute "harassment".

In fact, him contacting HR to complain about what is a reasonable action on your part is actually officially harassment (it is where I work anyway).

What you should have done is what you should do for any litterer: Report them to the local authorities, so they receive a penalty/warning notice, hopefully be fined, and ideally stop littering.

If he says it's no big deal, read this link for some damning facts about just how bad cigarette butts are for the environment, and how dangerous they are to animals and children.

  • "reminding"? This is the first time the OP knows the litterer was informed, I think. Ignorance is no excuse in the eyes of the law, so mentioning it once could even be interpreted as helping them avoid a fine in the future. – gmatht Nov 12 '16 at 12:05
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    @gmatht don't understand what you've said, however if he avoids a fine because he doesn't litter any more that's a good thing (because he's stopped littering) – Bohemian Nov 12 '16 at 12:15
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    Well, nobody is perfect, and a disproportionate response might be considered harassment, on either side. In this case a reasonable response by the coworker could have been "Oh gee, I didn't realise it was against the law. Thank you for helping me perform my civic duty (and potentially avoid a fine in future)". That only one side has made any attempt to penalise the other may make it more immediately clear to a potentially disinterested HR worker which side is doing the harassment. Having informed relevant people to what occurred, it may be wise to do his own job and let HR do the reminding. – gmatht Nov 13 '16 at 3:47
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    There's no point for the OP to further pursue the the argument. His rude colleague obviously doesn't care about how bad are cigarette butts for anyone, so any links to articles are pretty useless.] – Tomáš Zato Nov 15 '16 at 13:41
11

USER_8675309, First and foremost I hope you don't mind if I call you Jenny (per the song). Well Jenny, you are in luck, with regard to harassment the legal definition only focuses on activity that is degrading to or creates a hostile environment for a protected class. Being a litterbug does not meet that legal criteria so HR will not be pursuing action against you for the formal definition of harassment. Furthermore the informal concept of harassment requires repeated interactions with this worker, which per your statements do not seem to be happening(further good news per your side of the story).

HR departments do not like to be involved in these kinds of "he said, she said" disputes among employees as there are not many solutions to enable conflict resolution. I would encourage you to reference the above statements regarding "harassing" behavior to clear this up quickly. However, your choice of discussing this matter in the parking lot outside of work does put you firmly on company property creating an issue. The location does allow for the HR department to be involved in this matter, but when it becomes apparent that Litter Bug employee is embellishing the facts, things should clear up.

I would suggest increasing your work with any of the recycling programs held in your office to counteract this one bad apple. Remember while we can't correct someone's bad behavior, a little extra effort you can still make a difference for your company, and community. Thanks again Jenny for your question, and more importantly for caring about our environment.

  • 11
    That "Jenny" comment doesn't seem to add to the answer, because you only use a name once, using "you" all other times. – wizzwizz4 Nov 11 '16 at 16:53
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    The Jenny comment is great -- this is the first poster to recognize the reference in my tag, I suggest it stay – USER_8675309 Nov 11 '16 at 17:04
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    I'd like to ask you to reconsider your rejection of my suggested edit. While the Jenny joke may be apparent to the OP, it is distracting to anyone unfamiliar with the references and I don't see how it clarifies the problem. The paragraph breaks help with readability as well. (edit: I see you kept some of the paragraphs) – HugoRune Nov 11 '16 at 17:25
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    @HugoRune That could potentially be resolved by turning the word into a link that explains it. – jpmc26 Nov 12 '16 at 2:53
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    Think about it -- you're talking about punishing someone for reporting a criminal act, on the word of the person who committed the criminal act claiming that it was reported in a way they found confrontational and offensive. I can't imagine any company would do that, or if one did, they would get smacked down pretty hard. Obviously, we have a public policy of encouraging people to report and discourage criminal acts, and companies cannot put their policies ahead of such a major public policy. "I simply reported to him that what he was doing was against the law." -- case closed. – David Schwartz Nov 14 '16 at 10:35
5

As a non-smoker myself, I completely get you. Over here in the UK, many car manufacturers are replacing the ash tray with storage instead, reasoning that less people are smoking. Unfortunately, this gives nowhere for drivers to dispose of their butts, so they go out of the window (not smoking during the journey just isn't an option).

I don't think you need a lawyer, you just need to go through the motions and let HR deal with it - it'll most probably be judged as an "out of office" thing and you'll both get asked not to bother each other.

I'd just shrug it off, if smokers want to give themselves cancer, that's their choice. [This is my own opinion, naturally]

  • 1
    While it's true they no longer fit ashtrays, Toyota for example make a portable ashtray that fits the cupholder for the (now) minority of people that smoke in their car. – LoztInSpace Nov 11 '16 at 22:57
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    You almost make it sound like smokers are somehow discriminated against. When I want a cup holder in my car, or a hands-free set, I just buy one. Why can't smokers do the same, instead of expecting that their favourite gadget is present in all cars for free? – Dmitry Grigoryev Nov 14 '16 at 12:31
  • How old are the cars you all are buying? An ashtray is an accessory at best; and one you have to pay for. Remember the "smoker's packages"? – Shawn Nov 14 '16 at 17:09
3

Protect yourself

Protect yourself. Please consult a lawyer. I say this because HR is now involved. What I'm writing next didn't seem obvious to me at the time, but it is a distinct viewpoint that is important to the conversation. At one time in my career, I was made aware that HR has a responsibility to the company. This means the safety of the company comes first. It's a business reality, so it is not personal. As friendly as HR may seem towards you, don't confuse their professionalism with their role.

The actions from the other employee demonstrates escalation to me. First telling you to fuck-off, then approaching HR. If s/he had opted to approach you directly first to sit down in the coffee room, or requested an aside with you and your manager these would be more off-the-record. Once s/he called in HR, it becomes official and litigation, liability, compensation are potential matters.

In the order of priority as an individual, protect yourself first. Next, protect your family. Then, protect your friends. Last, protect the co-workers, company, country, environment, and ideals in the order of your choosing.

0

As to the HR meeting, if you have a union representative or similar labor-management liaison you can normally request the presence of such a person at this type of meeting. You may ask your boss or HR itself if such a representative exists at your workplace.

It is possible that your coworker reported you to HR not to be an even bigger jerk, but because he had a genuine concern about your mental state (vis-à-vis potential workplace violence). The behavior of someone following a coworker all the way to work to confront him about such a trivial matter as butt-tossing falls so far outside the norm that it at least approaches harassment. Think how you'd feel if someone tailed you to work and then confronted you in the parking lot in regard to your speeding during the commute, and then threw in a self-righteous lecture to boot. Speaking of which, if your dashcam includes a GPS and speed overlay, will you turn yourself in the next time you go a few mph over or fail to come to a full stop? I think the police would laugh you out of the station just as quickly for that as they would for someone trying to report a butt-toss. One would hope the finite police resources are spent on more serious offenses.

  • One would also hope that seeing a police officer tailing you on the highway would cause you to feel comfort instead of nervousness... – USER_8675309 Nov 15 '16 at 14:09
-2

This coworker told HR that I have been "harassing them." I told HR my side of the story. Now they want me to come to a longer meeting, which I don't really know what is about.

What it is about is HR justifying their existence. To HR departments any kind of "confrontation" between employees is an excuse to have 15 different meetings and write up half a dozen reports. They have probably held 3 meetings already to discuss the matter just among themselves.

Unfortunately, you are trapped in this bullshit now, so you have to deal with it. The only thing you can do at this point (if you want to stay at the company) is to be polite and perfunctory. If you are clever, you can try jokes designed to draw ridicule for having 12 person meetings over such a petty event.

Nobody cares what HR thinks, so whatever happens in the meetings is more or less irrelevant.

When you answer, it is advisable to stick to the facts. The HR clowns will try to turn it into a therapy session with questions like "How do you feel towards Melissa?" or "Are you angry about what happened?" and other such psychological questions. Don't fall for the trap. If they ask you a subjective or psychological question, just say "Let's stick to factual questions." The more concise and monosyllabic your answers are, the faster it will be over with.

How to Deal with Political Attacks

This accusation against you is essentially a political attack, because it has nothing to do with work performance and involves other people, ie, a political situation. In all honesty, defending yourself in this case is pointless, because, as I said, the people who matter (your boss and his/her boss) could care less what HR thinks. They are not going to fire a valuable worker because some loser in a different part of the company made some petty complaint.

However, in the event you need to defend yourself against a political attack in the future which might be more serious is to use what is called an ad hominum argument. This is a counter-attack on the reputation of the person who accused you. Never try to argue the facts in a political situation. Facts are like when-did-you-stop-beating-your-wife questions. You can only lose arguing facts. Arguing facts makes you look guilty.

So, for example, in this case, your accuser will say that you "shouted" at her. An error would be to argue and say "I did not shout at her." You look guilty if you do this. The right strategy is to counterattack. Say instead, "Melissa is a liar. She dresses poorly, is addicted to cigarettes and has an absenteeism problem which is consistent with her lying and trouble making." Melissa's worthless lies do not deserve the dignity of a response, so it is a mistake to stoop to the level of answering them.

-3

HR may be very interested in this for all sorts of reasons. Depending upon your jurisdiction, the company may be vicariously liable for the negligence or even crimes of your co-worker. If you had no other contact with the co-worker other than your initial exchange this is not harassment as described. I am assuming you made no reference to their age, gender, sexual preferences etc. etc. They have in fact assaulted you. Once again if you were driving to work, this may be considered as an assault upon you in your workplace. If they have made a complaint against you this is worse for them. Even if they have friends this would be a firing situation for them. If you need to, talk to a lawyer.

"Because Minnesota employers can be liable for automobile accidents caused by their employees, it is important to ensure that all individuals who operate a vehicle – whether a company vehicle or personal automobile – have a valid driver’s license, have a clean driving record, and are otherwise qualified to operate the vehicle. Employers should also adopt vehicle safety policies to ensure that employees are well trained and understand the company’s expectations for the safe operation of vehicles. " (trepanierlaw.com)

-4

It sounds like the meeting is between HR and you. It makes more sense at this stage to insist that the meeting is between all parties. All cards on the table at the same time, and the brighter ones in HR will become aware of who actually needs help.

If you aplogise at all, make sure that you are only sorry for the sensitive way the co-worker has taken your comments.

Only mistake really, was commenting on firm's property.

  • 6
    I didn't downvote, but the first paragraph doesn't seem to be particularly helpful advice, because the OP can't control who attends the meeting, as it's being called by HR. Refusing to attend a meeting unless certain conditions are met is not likely to help one's case. – barbecue Nov 13 '16 at 21:08
  • @barbecue - thanks for your feedback. Seems my comment has magically disappeared. Glad you saw it prior to that! Sounds more like a court case than a meeting. If that's the case, I'd request a meeting with all parties anyway. Fortuitously, retirement has saved me from nonsense like HR can sometimes be. – Tim Nov 14 '16 at 7:34
  • Could you clarify what benefit would be achieved by having all parties present as opposed to private meetings? – user30031 Nov 15 '16 at 20:27
  • I could, and I will. The whole dispute is pretty tenuous, so rather than wasting time and effort it makes sense ( to me) to get everything in the open together rather than just discussing the matter with one party. – Tim Nov 15 '16 at 21:17

protected by Jane S Nov 15 '16 at 2:45

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