The city of Charlotte has asked for a new trial in the case of a former fire investigator, and said in a court filing that “the weight of the evidence does not support the jury’s finding” against the city.
But the leading Republican candidate for mayor, City Council member Kenny Smith, said it’s time for the city to accept defeat.
“I think we need to close the books and move on,” Smith said. “I’m not going to support an appeal or a new trial.”
In May, a jury awarded Crystal Eschert $1.5 million in damages after she claimed the city retaliated against her for complaining about the safety and quality of renovations at an office building that was to house her unit.
The city said she was terminated for what it said was an offensive Facebook post made in August 2014 about the riots and protests in Ferguson, Mo.
After the jury’s verdict, the city hoped that U.S. Chief Judge Frank Whitney would overturn the decision. He did not.
Since then, Eschert’s attorney, Meg Maloney, has asked that some of the damages be tripled under an N.C. law that’s designed to protect whistleblowers and punish retaliation. If Whitney agrees, that would raise the damages to $2.4 million. Maloney has also filed a motion for the city to pay for Eschert’s legal bills, which are $566,000.
The city has spent $466,000 so far on its outside legal bills with the firm Lincoln Derr.
Earlier this month, Fire Chief Jon Hannan – who said that his department didn’t retaliate against Eschert – announced he would retire.
Smith was asked whether he thought the jury’s decision was correct.
“We lost in the court of public opinion,” he said.
He said the city shouldn’t have fired Eschert for the Facebook post. One reason, he said, is that other Fire Department employees had also made questionable social media posts around the same time and received little or no discipline.
For the last two years, the City Council has been briefed on the Eschert case, but has not been asked by city staff on how it should proceed with the case.
It’s possible that could change. Democratic council member Claire Fallon has long been critical of the city’s defense and has said repeatedly that she believes the city retaliated against her.
While Smith said the city needs to accept the verdict, the three most high-profile Democratic candidates for mayor declined to comment on the case.
Mayor Jennifer Roberts said it wouldn’t be appropriate to comment while the case is pending.
She said she expects she and council members will be briefed about the case in a few weeks. Roberts said after that she may be able to speak about the case.
Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles, who is running against Roberts in the primary, also declined to comment on the case.
State Sen. Joel Ford, who is also running, said he can’t comment on the case because he hasn’t been privy to the city’s strategy and case.
In its filing, the city asks Whitney to either overturn the jury’s verdict or to grant a new trial.