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Fired combat veteran sues McDonald, alleging discrimination

A former sheriff’s deputy and combat veteran has filed a lawsuit against Sheriff Charlie McDonald claiming that the sheriff improperly fired him for symptoms arising from service-related hearing loss and PTSD.

 

In a 33-page lawsuit he filed Dec. 7 in U.S. District Court, Geoffrey Turner detailed a series of workplace interactions with supervisors from 2012 until July 2015, when McDonald terminated him.

McDonald said through a spokesman Monday that North Carolina law prevents his office from disclosing any details of Turner's employment.

"Were Mr. Turner willing to provide a release for his personnel file, then we would be at liberty to respond to the allegations in greater detail," a statement said. "Until such time, however, all we can say is, these claims are without merit, and we will gladly provide a copy of our responsive pleadings as soon as they are filed with the court."

"Sheriff McDonald holds our veterans in the highest regard, as he himself and many others in the office are veterans," Maj. Frank Stout said. "This agency has a unique and thorough understanding of their sacrifice and value to our nation. Sheriff McDonald appreciates that numerous veterans have proven to be a most valuable asset when they seek a career in law enforcement. They bring leadership and decision-making skills, the ability to work within a team, and a proven commitment to mission success and the welfare of the organization."

Recounting his military background and employment experience, Turner said that he served in the U.S. Army National Guard from March 2000 until March 2005, served as a military police sergeant in Afghanistan and a team leader in Iraq in 2003 and 2004, served as a government contractor from 2005 to 2009 and worked as a federal officer with the Veterans Administration from 2009 to 2011. In 2009 and 2010 he was diagnosed with hearing loss and tinnitus in his left ear arising from his military service. Hiring personnel at the sheriff’s office knew of his service-connected disability at the time, he said.

Initially hired as a reserve deputy in March 2012, Turner was diagnosed two months later with post-traumatic stress disorder. That same month he took a fulltime job in the uniform patrol division. Over time, though he had satisfactory or better reviews, Turner continued to have difficulty with supervisors and claimed he was harassed for having a disability, he said.

“These acts of harassment were multiple, frequent and pervasive harassment of Turner based on his military service and his hearing loss,” Turner said in the lawsuit, filed by Asheville attorney Jessica E. Leaven of the Grimes Teich Anderson law firm.

Turner further alleges that:

  • Warrant squad Cpl. Paul Blackwell told Turner in June 2013 he was not qualified under new standards of the squad, was a “rookie” whose military experience “did not matter or mean anything.” Turner viewed the comments as “without any basis,” given that his military police experience was relevant.
  • After his transfer to the warrants squad, Turner’s PTSD symptoms became worse, then were compounded when a close friend and fellow combat veteran committed suicide, in July 2013. The following day Turner sought treatment at the county’s Wellness Clinic and received a note from a nurse practitioner recommending rest. Turner complained to Blackwell and Capt. Tim Gordon that his stress was made worse by Blackwell “harassing and insulting him about his military service, his military background and his hearing loss” and added: “I’m telling you this in front of my captain. It’s wrong and it needs to stop.” Gordon told Turner he supported the supervisor and added, “With this PTSD maybe this profession is not what’s best for you,” according to the lawsuit.
  • Supervisors continued to question Turner’s fitness to do the work because of his hearing loss. In August 2014 Gordon said in a letter to county Veterans Services Officer Mike Murphy, whom Turner had appealed to for help, that Turner “remains at risk in this line of work due to his hearing loss,” including "a lack of ability to hear approaching danger or verbal warnings from officers while performing his duties …”
  • The tension seemed to escalate as supervisors continued to warn Turner not to speak about his military experience, at one point saying he would be fired for doing so. In May 2015, Turner told Gordon that he had spoken with Murphy, the veterans services officer, who told the veteran that “what they were doing to him was illegal.”
  • After Turner resigned from his position on the warrants squad and as a SWAT team member, McDonald met with him, in May 2015, and told him he could step down to a reserve deputy role. That same month, Turner started taking a PTSD medication that caused “sleeplessness, agitation, angry outbursts, irritation, impulsive behavior, hallucination and loss of contact with reality.” He filled out paperwork and was granted a medical leave of absence. While on leave, Turner posted comments on Facebook “related to the harassment he had experienced” at the sheriff’s office. Though he quickly deleted the comments, Turner received a call from Capt. Gordon asking about the comments. Turner responded that the new drugs had “messed him up” and explained that he had taken down the comments.
  • In July, McDonald met privately with Turner at a local shooting range, offering him the opportunity to resign, saying, “I don’t offer that to everyone.” The Facebook comments, McDonald told him, were “completely unacceptable.” Later that day, Turner submitted a letter of resignation “due to multiple and consistent experience of veterans discrimination.” Instead of accepting the resignation, McDonald “constructively discharged” Turner.
  • The termination, the lawsuit said, was because of Turner’s “disabilities, his history of disabilities … because of his request and need for accommodations for his disabilities” and was in retaliation for the request.

Turner filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in August 2015. The EEOC issued a "notice of right to sue" to Turner last Sept. 8, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit accuses McDonald and the sheriff’s office of harassment and discrimination and retaliation and multiple violations of the Uniformed Services Employment and Re-employment Rights Act, which protects veterans from workplace discrimination. The lawsuit seeks a jury trial, actual and compensatory damages, recovery of lost wages, attorney fees and other costs. McDonald, who was served with the lawsuit on Dec. 20, had not yet filed a response in federal court.