City settles whistleblower case for $1.1 million but insists it did nothing wrong

City settles whistleblower case for $1.1 million but insists it did nothing wrong

CHARLOTTE, NC (Steve Harrison/The Charlotte Observer) - The city of Charlotte ended the Crystal Eschert whistleblower lawsuit Wednesday, agreeing to pay the former fire investigator $1.14 million in damages and attorneys fees for what a jury found was an unlawful firing.

But after settling the case, the city attorney's office contended the city did nothing wrong.

"The City Council decided it was best to end this dispute and move on," said City Attorney Bob Hagemann in a statement. "While the city respects the jury's verdict and the court's rulings, this settlement should not be interpreted as agreement, or an admission of wrongdoing or liability. To the contrary, the city defended itself based on a conviction that Ms. Eschert's termination was justified and lawful."

The city said it fired Eschert for what it described as an offensive Facebook post made after the Ferguson, Mo., protests in 2014. Eschert said the social media post was an excuse to fire her after she complained about the safety of a new office building that was being renovated for arson investigators.

The City Council had met several times in closed session about the case, giving Hagemann advice on how to proceed. But council members did not sign off on the statement stating the Eschert's termination was justified and lawful.

Meg Maloney, Eschert's attorney, said she is "disappointed that the city still refuses to admit that it did anything wrong."

"The retaliation was obvious to the jury, which was reflected in their verdict," she said.

The case had embarrassed the city and touched on First Amendment questions about what public employees can say.

Complicating the city's case was evidence presented during the trial of social media posts made by Fire Department employees around the same time. Those posts were more offensive than what Eschert had written. None of the other employees were disciplined for posting them.

In May, a jury awarded Eschert $1.5 million in damages.

But U.S. Chief District Judge Frank Whitney later reduced those damages to $464,000. He said the jury had incorrectly filled out a form awarding damages, and had allowed Eschert to collect more than she should have.

He gave Eschert the option of seeking a new trial to collect the full $1.5 million. Eschert declined and agreed to accept the $464,000.

In addition to the $1.14 million the city agreed to pay in damages and Eschert's attorney fees, the city has also racked up its own legal bills. At the end of the September, the city had paid two law firms just under $484,000.

In a statement Wednesday, Eschert said "I will never second guess my decision to raise my concerns regarding health and safety to Charlotte Fire Department management. In spite of what I went through, I hope I have made a difference for other employees of the City and members of the Fire Department."

Though the city was adamant it did nothing wrong, Fire Chief Jon Hannan announced his retirement in June, after the May verdict. Hannan was forced out by City Manager Marcus Jones, according to several city officials.