Crystal Eschert to file lawsuit against city of Charlotte

Crystal Eschert to file lawsuit against city of Charlotte

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - A former Charlotte Fire investigator has filed paperwork indicating a lawsuit against the city of Charlotte after her controversial firing in 2014.

According to attorney Margaret Maloney, paperwork was filed Friday in Mecklenburg County court ahead of a lawsuit that will be filed "in a couple weeks."

City officials fired Eschert in September 2014, claiming she violated the city's social media policy with an offensive Facebook post about Ferguson, Missouri.

Eschert – who is white – wrote this Facebook post in late summer: "White guy shot by police yesterday near Ferguson...Where is Obama? Where is Holder? Where is Al Sharpton? Where are Trayvon Martins parents? Where are all the white guys supporters? So WHY is everyone MAKING it a racial issue?!? So tired of hearing 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!"

The other Eschert Facebook message in question was a posting from a web site called "Law Enforcement Today."

"Want to know where racial tension and cultural divide comes from? 794 law enforcement officers have fallen in the Line of Duty since B.H. Obama took office, with no special recognition from the White House. A man robs a convenience store and assaults a cop; the White House sends three representatives to his memorial service."

Eschert says she was fired when she blew the whistle about what she claimed were unhealthy conditions at a fire department building - specifically mold in the remodeled building on North Graham Street that houses several Charlotte Fire Department units.

The investigation into Eschert's firing, referred to as Van Laningham Report after its author, Allison Van Laningham, concluded that there was no conclusive evidence that Eschert's firing was retaliation. Van Laningham did not dismiss the possibility either.

According to the paperwork filed Friday afternoon, Eschert plans to file a lawsuit for free speech violations and wrongful termination. The lawsuit is expected to be filed before May 5, according to the document.

A WBTV investigation shows the city of Charlotte paid roughly $304,000 for two investigations into the Charlotte Fire Department - the Van Laningham Report and a second consultant to review the Fire Department's management system and discipline process.

WBTV spoke with Charlotte Fire Chief Jon Hannan in February 2015 and he wouldn't talk about Eschert by name, but said the words attached to her page damaged the public trust.

"So we've got stay in a position that anyone feels comfortable with us in their private areas taking care of their children what every it is to function as the Fire Department we've got to be welcomed," he said.

Hannan said the mold was not an issue. "Where the people were working in the building, there was not a mold issue," he said.

He added that officials didn't know who filed the complaint when Eschert was let go.

"We had no idea who made the complaint about mold in this building and there can be no retaliation, because we didn't know who made the complaint," Hannan said.

Hannan said city manager Ron Carlee initially forbade him to investigate Eschert's Facebook post because Carlee was under "pressure from a council member," according to a transcript obtained by The Charlotte Observer of the hearing.

"The city manager called me and ordered me to stop the investigation," Hannan said, according to the transcript.

Hannan said during the hearing that he believed that Carlee was getting "pressure" from a city council member to stop the investigation, according to the transcript. At-large council member Claire Fallon told the Observer she believes that is a reference to her.

Eschert had reached out to Fallon in August 2014 about the quality of North Graham Street renovations. She said she contacted Carlee about problems with the building, and said she had told him that Eschert was a whistleblower.

During the hearing, Hannan said about three weeks passed after Carlee ordered the probe to stop.

"I told the city manager that the posting was an extremely bad thing for the city not to deal with in that environment," Hannan said in the hearing. "I had the police chief calling me and saying, 'We have to deal with this. It involves both departments (because Eschert was a public safety employee).' And (Carlee) forbid me to move forward. It took me three weeks to convince him to let us finish the investigation."

The city told the Observer that Carlee stopped the investigation to make sure there were no First Amendment concerns with Eschert's post. Once the City Attorney's Office determined that her termination could be defended, the Fire Department was allowed to proceed, said city spokeswoman Sandy D'Elosua.

The department then fired Eschert.

When Eschert was fired in September, the department told her that it had to terminate her because the city council was upset about the posts and because the Observer had made a public records request about her case.

In March 2015, Eschert went before the Civil Service Board to determine whether the board could hear her appeal. The board ruled that it was not in their jurisdiction to hear the appeal. She filed an appeal a month later.

Charlotte firefighter Marty Puckett sent an email last month to the Charlotte City Council on behalf of council representative Claire Fallon. In the email, Fallon questioned why a recommendation from the Department of Labor to settle the Eschert case was not brought to the council.

"We are paying at $300 per hour to an attorney who at the same time supposedly is the City's consulting attorney and also defends [Fire] Chief Jon Hannan. This is a conflict. Why?" Fallon wrote. "This case is full of lies and deceit perpetuated by the City Administration. I have warned everyone about this before, and if we allow this to continue, we are responsible. It is time for the Chief to leave."

City manager Ron Carlee sent a memo to Puckett, who was purportedly working as unpaid intern for Fallon, telling him to stay away from members of the Charlotte City Council or he could be fired. Carlee said Puckett was violating the city's charter with the position that was a "conflict of interest and not permitted."

Hannan was recently placed on three-month probation by Carlee after he released the confidential memo to the media.

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