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Jury awards North Carolina woman $1.5M in whistleblower suit

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — A federal jury has awarded $1.5 million to a former North Carolina fire investigator who said she was fired after complaining about the safety of construction work at an office building.

The Charlotte Observer reported (http://bit.ly/2ppxYn0) that a jury ruled Thursday in favor of Crystal Eschert, who said the Charlotte Fire Department fired her in 2014 because of her concerns over renovations at a new office building.

Officials in Charlotte said Eschert was fired because of a Facebook post in the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown, a black teenager, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The city said the firing was justified because the post could have led to community unrest.

The post was made Aug. 20, 2014, about 10 days after Brown’s shooting and was restricted to Eschert’s friends on Facebook:

“White guy shot by police yesterday near Ferguson . 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. If you are a thug and worthless to society, it’s not race – You’re just a waste no matter what religion, race or sex you are.”

Eschert’s attorney, Meg Maloney, said the Facebook post was an excuse to fire Eschert. At the time of the post, she was a fire investigator who had received good performance reviews.

Much of the trial focused on free speech and political correctness. One juror, who asked not to be identified for privacy reasons, said Eschert had a right to speak her mind.

It’s unclear if the city will appeal the verdict to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia. The city council and Mayor Jennifer Roberts are expected to discuss in a closed meeting whether the city wants to continue the fight.

City Attorney Bob Hagemann would not talk about the verdict Thursday, saying “a judgment has not been entered as there are a number of legal rulings that still must be made.”

Maloney said she expects the city to ask for the jury’s verdict be lowered or nullified by U.S. Chief District Judge Frank Whitney.

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Information from: The Charlotte Observer, http://www.charlotteobserver.com

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