WASHINGTON – The Justice Department announced today the filing of a complaint in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina against Forsyth County, N.C., and the county sheriff, William T. Schatzman, for violating the employment rights of North Carolina Army National Guard soldier Michael Russell under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA).
The department’s complaint alleges that Sheriff Schatzman and Forsyth County violated USERRA by terminating Russell’s employment with the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office (FCSO) without cause and without notice within one year after his reemployment following his return from active military duty. Russell, an Iraq War veteran who is currently serving with the Army National Guard in Afghanistan, had worked as a deputy sheriff and sergeant deputy sheriff with FCSO since 1989. In February 2010, Russell completed a one-year deployment to Iraq with the North Carolina Army National Guard and returned to his position with Forsyth County as a sergeant deputy sheriff. On Nov. 29, 2010, less than one year following Russell’s reinstatement to his position, Sheriff Schatzman and Forsyth County discharged Russell from his employment without cause.
According to the Justice Department’s complaint, Russell’s employment was terminated because of Sheriff Schatzman’s belief that Russell had supported the election campaign of another candidate for Forsyth County sheriff, Dave Griffith. Russell did not support Griffith’s campaign for Forsyth County Sheriff. With the objective of winning a motorcycle rather than the purpose of supporting Griffith’s campaign, Russell purchased raffle tickets, at total cost of $100, for a motorcycle raffle whose proceeds went to Griffith’s campaign. Sheriff Schatzman and Forsyth County failed to provide notice to Russell that purchase of tickets for a raffle sponsored by a campaign would constitute cause for discharge.
“The men and women who wear our nation’s uniform need to know that they will be protected from unjust terminations when they return from significant periods of military service,” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. “The Civil Rights Division is committed to aggressive enforcement of USERRA to protect our brave service members, whose rights do not end with their first day back on the job.”
Russell initially filed a complaint with the Labor Department’s Veterans’ Employment and Training Service, which investigated the matter, determined that the complaint had merit and referred the matter to the Justice Department. The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division subsequently decided to represent Russell in this matter and filed this lawsuit on his behalf.
USERRA prohibits employers from discriminating against service members with respect to employment opportunities based on their past, current or future uniformed service obligations. USERRA also provides service members, such as Russell, special protection from discharge from civilian employment after returning from uniformed service, such as a deployment. Under USERRA, if an individual served over 180 days before returning to civilian employment, then he or she may not be discharged from the civilian employment position within one year, except for cause. In order to discharge an individual for conduct during this protected period, an employer must show that it was reasonable to discharge the employee for that conduct, and that the employee had notice that the conduct would constitute cause for discharge.
Among other things, the suit seeks compensation for Russell’s lost wages and benefits and reinstatement of Russell’s employment with FCSO.
This case is being handled by the Employment Litigation Section of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
Additional information about USERRA can be found on the Justice Department websites www.usdoj.gov/crt/emp and www.servicemembers.gov, as well as the Labor Department website www.dol.gov/vets/programs/userra/main.htm.