Politics & Government

If attorney fees granted, city bill in whistleblower case could hit nearly $3 million

Crystal Eschert (right) and her attorney Meg Maloney speak to reporters in May after a jury awarded her $1.5 million in a whistleblower case.
Crystal Eschert (right) and her attorney Meg Maloney speak to reporters in May after a jury awarded her $1.5 million in a whistleblower case. Steve Harrison/sharrison@charlotteobserver.com

The attorney for Crystal Eschert, the former fire investigator who won a retaliation whistleblower lawsuit against the city of Charlotte, has filed paperwork requesting the city pay her client’s legal bills of $566,000.

Last month a jury awarded Eschert $1.5 million after it found the Charlotte Fire Department retaliated against her for complaining about the quality and safety of renovations at a new office building that now houses arson investigators.

The city said that wasn’t true, and that she was fired over what it said was an offensive Facebook post Eschert made in 2014 after the riots and protests in Ferguson, Mo. Escchert’s attorney said the Facebook post was an excuse, and that someone associated with the Fire Department created a fake complaint about the post as pretext for Eschert to be fired.

Immediately after the jury issued its verdict May 11, the city said it believed the jury had made a mistake when it granted Eschert $1.5 million. But U.S. District Judge Frank Whitney upheld the verdict June 2.

The city still believes the amount of damages will be lowered.

But as the city hopes Whitney will reduce the amount of damages, Eschert’s attorney, Meg Maloney, has filed motions seeking more damages from the city.

In a court filing in early June, Maloney said the court should triple one of the awards of $464,538 under the North Carolina Retaliatory Employment Discrimination Act. The act was passed in the 1990s to discourage employers from retaliating against whistleblowers, and it can allow judges to triple damages.

In her motion, Maloney wrote, “Rarely is there a case where the whistleblower is identified as the whistleblower using that very word, prior to the decision to terminate their employment.”

She added that Eschert “presented substantial evidence that (the city’s) reason for terminating her was not believable but was a cover-up for retaliation because of her REDA protected activity.”

If part of Eschert’s damages are awarded, the city could have to pay $2.4 million. If the attorney fees are granted, that would raise the bill to nearly $3 million.

The city has not provided the Observer with how much it has spent in outside legal bills on the case, according to attorney Sara Lincoln.

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs