The posts quickly made their way to her superiors. A month later, in September 2014, the fire department fired her, saying the remarks were offensive and had tarnished the department’s reputation.
But Eschert claimed the department’s claim about the posts were a pretext for something else. Earlier that year, she had complained about conditions at a building that was set to become a new office for arson investigators. She was fired not because of her remarks on Facebook but because she was a whistleblower, she alleged in a federal lawsuit against the city of Charlotte.
On Thursday, after a week-long trial, a jury agreed.
Eschert was awarded $1.5 million after jurors found that the city had retaliated against her for raising safety concerns about the new office building, as the Charlotte Observer reported. The jury rejected the city’s arguments that she was sacked for the Facebook posts.
A gender discrimination claim in the lawsuit was shot down, but the case was still a major victory for Eschert, who accused the city of wrongfully firing her and violating her First Amendment rights.
“I appreciate the jury’s time as well and their ability to really look into the information that was provided and make the best decision they felt was appropriate,” Eschert told WSOC on Thursday. “It just gave me confirmation that I did the right thing.”
It’s not clear if Charlotte will appeal. An attorney for the city told the Observer that “a judgment has not been entered and there are a number of legal rulings that still must be made.”
Before she was fired, Eschert was in good standing at the fire department, according to her lawsuit. She had worked as an arson investigator since 2010, the complaint said, and had received favorable performance reviews.
In 2014, Eschert toured a building in Charlotte that her arson team was supposed to move into later that year. During the tour, the lawsuit said, she noticed a number of safety problems, including asbestos contamination, mold and electrical problems.
Rather than first notifying her bosses, Eschert went to a city council member and her father-in-law, a local business leader with political connections, according to the complaint. In turn, they pressured the city to spend more time and money on renovations.
Around the same time, Eschert posted about the unrest in Ferguson, where protesters and law enforcement officers were clashing over the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by officer Darren Wilson. Eschert was disturbed after reading a news report that black officers had shot a white man nearby, the complaint said.
“White guy shot by police yesterday near Ferguson,” she wrote on her Facebook. “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.”
When a friend told her the report was inaccurate, she took down the post, according to the complaint.
A short time later, Eschert shared an image from Law Enforcement Today, a news and commentary site run by law enforcement officers, that criticized the way Obama had responded to the deaths of police officers.
Both posts, the lawsuit said, were shared on her private Facebook page, which didn’t identify her as a public employee. They amounted to a “private expression of her personal opinion expressed as part of a public debate occurring throughout the country at the time,” the complaint said.
Nevertheless, a Facebook user named Linda Havery took screenshots of the posts and forwarded them to Eschert’s superiors.
Eschert’s lawyer called the account in the name of Havery a fake, likely connected to someone in the city who sought to retaliate against her, as the Observer reported. The complaint noted that the user had no Facebook friends and said city officials weren’t able to show she was a real person.
Initially, fire department officials seemed unconcerned about the posts, telling Eschert, “you’re entitled to your own opinion” and “you’re asking the same questions that a large number of other people in America are asking,” according to the complaint.
But a few weeks later, Eschert was told the posts had called the department’s impartiality and integrity into question, and had even endangered Charlotte’s first responders, the complaint said. She was fired in fall 2014.
Eschert’s lawsuit called her termination unfair and retaliatory. The complaint noted that other firefighters hadn’t been fired for posting racially charged comments or images to their Facebook accounts, including an image of a black man shot and killed by police along with the phrase “Black Lives Matter Thug.”
At trial, city attorney Sara Lincoln argued that Eschert’s remarks were a “judgement on human life,” according to the Observer.
After the verdict came down, Eschert’s attorney, Meg Maloney, told the paper: “The city needs to take a hard long look at how it works.”
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