Fire investigator awarded $1.5M in whistleblower case
Crystal Eschert was fired for raising questions about the safety of construction work at a new office building
By Steve Harrison
The Charlotte Observer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In an embarrassing verdict for the city of Charlotte, a jury Thursday found the Fire Department retaliated against former fire investigator Crystal Eschert for raising questions about the safety of construction work at a new office building, awarding her $1.5 million.
The jury rejected Charlotte’s claims that Eschert’s firing wasn’t retaliation. It also cast aside the city’s defense that the firing was necessary because Eschert had made what the city said was an offensive and inflammatory Facebook post.
On Aug. 20, 2014, about 10 days after the shooting of Michael Brown set off riots in Ferguson, Mo., Eschert wrote this post on her Facebook page, which was restricted to her Facebook friends:
“White guy shot by police yesterday near Ferguson … Where is Obama? Where is Holder? Where is Al Sharpton? Where are Trayvon Martin’s parents? Where are all the white guys supporters? So is everyone MAKING it a racial issue? So tired it’s a racial thing. If you are a thug and worthless to society, it’s not race – You’re just a waste no matter what religion, race or sex you are.”
Much of the trial focused on free speech and political correctness. One juror, who asked not to be identified, said Eschert had a right to speak her mind.
“After reading the post in its entirety, she was expressing the frustrations people had with what was going on in the country. She has a right to do so. I don’t agree with it, but she a right to do so,” the juror said.
It’s unclear if the city will appeal the verdict to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. It’s likely the City Council and Mayor Jennifer Roberts would discuss in closed session whether the city wants to continue the fight.
After the verdict, Meg Maloney, Eschert’s attorney, called on the City Council to stop what she said is a retaliatory culture in the city.
“The city needs to take a hard long look at how it works,” Maloney said.
Fire Chief Jon Hannan was not in the courtroom when the verdict was read. Two of his deputy chiefs, Rich Granger and Pete Key, were there, but they did not speak with the media.
City Manager Marcus Jones couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday.
At the time of the Facebook post, Eschert was a fire investigator who had received good performance reviews.
But she had recently raised questions about the quality of renovations at a building on North Graham Street that was to house her unit. She believed the building wasn’t safe, and she contacted her father-in-law Ray Eschert, a prominent Ballantyne political activist. Eschert then contacted City Council member Claire Fallon, who asked for a tour of the building.
Maloney said Eschert’s decision to go outside the chain of command upset the Fire Department.
Soon after Fallon was contacted, someone named Linda Havery emailed then-police chief Rodney Monroe and Hannan. Havery complained about Eschert’s Ferguson Facebook post, saying it could cause unrest in the community.
Maloney told the jury that Linda Havery doesn’t exist, and was created by someone associated with the city as a way to retaliate against Eschert.
Eschert was fired soon after the complaint.
In its closing arguments Wednesday, Sara Lincoln, an attorney for the city, said Eschert’s job as an arson investigator means she should be held to a high standard. She said because fire investigators must sometimes testify in court, a Facebook post using words like “thug” could make it hard for her to do her job.
“What she wrote was a judgment on human life,” Lincoln said her closing statement.
But the city struggled to explain why Eschert was fired for her post, while firefighters made a number of other questionable social media posts with little or not discipline.
One was a meme that made fun of the names that some black women give to their children. Another showed a photo of Daquan Westbrook, who was shot and killed inside a Northlake Mall store by police in December. The posting showed his corpse lying on the floor, and said he was a “Black Lives Matter Thug.”
None of those employees were terminated.
Maloney said that if Eschert should be held to high standards, so should firefighters.
“Firefighters come into people’s homes,” she said Wednesday.
Lincoln said one reason that the posts were different is that Eschert made hers soon after the riots in Ferguson, at a time when Charlotte was worried about similar unrest.
She also said that the person who emailed the posts to city officials and the media wasn’t complaining about the content and didn’t seem offended. That differed from the person who emailed the city about Eschert’s Facebook post. That person, Linda Havery, said the post could cause racial unrest.
“Ferguson wasn’t on fire,” Lincoln said about the other posts.
Lincoln said Maloney offered no proof that anyone associated with the city is Linda Havery. She also said the email was sent from a non-city computer.
Lincoln also said that Eschert’s claims there were safety problems at the renovated building on North Graham Street were wrong. She portrayed Eschert as a disgruntled employee who wanted a nicer office – not a legitimate whistleblower.
The city got one win on Thursday. The jury found Eschert wasn’t discriminated against because she was a woman – only because she was a whistleblower.
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