A longtime Hiram police officer alleges that city officials demoted him because of his age, made him work while he was on medical leave following a heart attack, and subjected him to an unlawful “fit for duty” test upon his return.
He also said he was fired in October 2018 in part because of his “refusal to stay quiet about unlawful practices” of the city of Hiram, the city manager and its former police chief.
Former officer Glenn Michael O’Neal Jr. filed a complaint in U.S. District Court in Rome earlier this month against the city of Hiram, former police chief Todd Vande Zande and City Manager Jody Palmer alleging violation of the federal Family Medical Leave Act, Georgia Whistleblower Act and Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act.
Dallas attorney Jayson Phillips, who is representing the city and its employees in the complaint, declined comment on the allegations because of them being pending litigation.
O’Neal’s complaint, filed by Atlanta attorney Mario Williams Aug. 13, said the violations occurred as O’Neal “had been reporting instances of the city of Hiram and its employees’ harassment and discrimination, a hostile work environment, and engaging in unlawful employment practices, such as requiring him to take a ‘fit for duty’ test upon his return to work, knowing he had been on medical leave.”
O’Neal’s complaint said the alleged age discrimination under Title VII occurred when Vande Zande demoted the officer from the rank of major and deputy chief to lieutenant with a drop in pay and duties within four months of Vande Zande’s hiring in April 2013.
“... Chief Vande Zande communicated his intentions to replace Lt. O’Neal with a younger officer, Sgt. Stephen Johnson; in fact, while O’Neal was out on medical leave, Sgt. Johnson took over O’Neal’s responsibilities.
“Chief Vande Zande went around normal hiring practices to hire younger employees and disqualify older candidates from consideration,” the complaint states.
It said Vande Zande unlawfully discriminated against O’Neal because of a disability after he told the chief he had diabetes and would need to undergo further testing for a heart condition.
Vande Zande “told O’Neal that he should start exercising and that he was in poor health” and “wanted to demote O’Neal from lieutenant to a secretarial, non-law enforcement position because of his ‘poor health,’” the complaint states.
Then, the complaint stated O’Neal suffered a heart attack Oct. 1, 2017, and took medical leave from his employment the following day.
The leave was taken through October 2018 at the recommendation of his doctors “as a result of his heart condition and the accompanying pain and anxiety from his job and workplace environment,” the complaint stated.
On Oct. 12, 2017, Vande Zande created a “Fitness for Duty Policy,” and “falsified the effective date to make it look as if it was in effect on Sept. 25, 2017,” O’Neal’s complaint stated..
“... Vande Zande attempted to institute this policy in retaliation for O’Neal reporting Vande Zande’s behavior and creating a hostile work environment,” it said.
The complaint stated O’Neal, while on medical leave, was required to keep up with training, emails and his city-issued phone; attend an insurance meeting to guarantee his benefits; attend a class on “Avoiding Harassment in the Workplace”; and other activities for which he “was never compensated for any of the time he was required to work while out on approved medical leave.”
WHISTLEBLOWER LAW VIOLATIONS ALLEGED
O’Neal said in his Aug. 13 complaint in U.S. District Court that Palmer and the city retaliated against him in violation of the state whistleblower law after he complained about Vande Zande’s alleged harassment, discrimination and “creating a hostile work environment.”
Vande Zande resigned in February 2018 in part because of a series of complaints about his treatment of employees.
O’Neal stated he filed several grievances around that time against Palmer to the Hiram City Council after getting no response from the city manager about previous complaints about Vande Zande.
Palmer then “cut O’Neal’s benefits, took away his Aflac Life insurance and Aflac accidental policy, and $2,600 from his flex medical spending account, all while O’Neal was still on medical leave” allegedly in retaliation for O’Neal complaining about Palmer to the City Council, the complaint said.
In May and June, he said he filed a complaint that Palmer was violating the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act by speaking about O’Neal’s health with other employees.
O’Neal said he also contacted District Attorney Dick Donovan in June about Palmer allegedly “hindering an investigation that the Mayor and Council ordered.”
Palmer then sent O’Neal a letter dated Oct. 9, 2018, which stated O’Neal had exhausted all of his available medical leave and Palmer was firing him effective Oct. 9, 2018.
He said Palmer took the action despite O’Neal not being informed that “his approved leave of absence was expiring by phone, email, letter, or any other form of communication.”
Because of him being over the age of 40, health status and disability because of diabetes and a congenital heart condition, and his “refusal to stay quiet about unlawful practices by defendants,” O’Neal was fired, the complaint said..
He said Palmer and the city “intentionally neglected to update O’Neal regarding his medical leave’s expiration date” to penalize him and force him out of the police department.
O’Neal is asking for a jury trial and special damages of at least $250,000.
He also is asking for back pay with interest; compensatory and punitive damages against the defendant; reinstatement to his position with the city with the same salary, benefits and seniority; or if not reinstated, payment as determined by the court.