Politics & Government

City’s own legal bills in Crystal Eschert case reach $432,000 – and are climbing

The city of Charlotte has spent $432,000 in legal bills to defend itself against Crystal Eschert’s whistleblower lawsuit. A jury in May awarded Eschert (right) $1.5 million. Her attorney Meg Maloney is at her side.
The city of Charlotte has spent $432,000 in legal bills to defend itself against Crystal Eschert’s whistleblower lawsuit. A jury in May awarded Eschert (right) $1.5 million. Her attorney Meg Maloney is at her side. Steve Harrison

The city of Charlotte has already spent $432,517 on outside attorneys in the Crystal Eschert whistleblower case – and the final bill could be higher.

Last month, a jury awarded Eschert $1.5 million, saying the Charlotte Fire Department retaliated against her after she complained about the quality and safety of renovations at a building that was to house Eschert and her colleagues.

The city and its attorney, the firm Lincoln Derr, has been adamant that wasn’t true. The Fire Department said it fired Eschert because of what it said was an offensive Facebook post she wrote in August 2014, about the protests and riots in Ferguson, Mo.

Eschert said the city used the post as an excuse to retaliate against her for being a whistleblower.

In early June, U.S. Chief Judge Frank Whitney upheld the jury’s verdict.

In a court filing after Whitney upheld the verdict, Eschert’s attorney Meg Maloney argued that 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 Whitney approves the motion, Eschert’s damages would rise to $2.4 million. Maloney has also said the city should pay her client’s legal fees, which are $566,000.

The city hopes that Whitney will reduce the amount of damages in the case. It’s also possible the city could appeal.

In either scenario, the city’s legal bills will rise.

In addition to spending $432,000 on attorney fees, the city paid a Greensboro attorney $214,000 in 2015 to investigate Eschert’s claims on retaliation. The city also spent $90,000 on an Ohio-based consultant, Management Partners, to review the Fire Department’s policies and workplace culture after Eschert was fired.

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs

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