Friday, November 28–OCPD’s Failure To Promote Sergeant Discrimination?

OCEAN CITY – A long-time Ocean City police sergeant this week filed a discrimination civil suit against the town and its police department alleging he was bypassed for promotion to lieutenant when he was activated into service as a U.S. Coast Guard reserve officer after the Sept. 11 terrorists attacks.

Sgt. William Bunting, an officer with the department since 1984, this week filed a civil discrimination suit in U.S. District Court against his employer and the town of Ocean City seeking an immediate promotion to lieutenant and $350,000 in lost wages, benefits and other compensation because he was allegedly passed over for promotion because of his status as a reserve officer with the Coast Guard.

According to the complaint, Bunting was first denied promotion to lieutenant in 2004 when he returned to the department after being called into active duty with the Coast Guard in 2002. In a second count in the complaint, Bunting alleges he was bypassed for promotion to lieutenant again in 2005 and 2007 because of action he took to enforce his rights under the Uniformed Services Employment and Re-employment Rights Act (USERRA) for his perceived initial slight. 

Bunting, who started with the Ocean City Police Department (OCPD) in 1984, maintained his status as a U.S. Coast Guard reserve officer during his employment with the department and his superiors were aware of his status as a reserve officer with the Coast Guard. In December 2002, Bunting was notified he was being called into active duty in support of Operations Noble Eagle and Enduring Freedom. According to the complaint filed this week, Bunting notified his superiors about his pending deployment at that time.

As ordered, Bunting reported for active duty with the Coast Guard in February 2003 and continued on full-time active duty until he was released in September 2004, at which time he applied for re-employment with the OCPD to Chief Bernadette DiPino.

However, while Bunting was away on active duty, a special order authorizing a promotion process for the rank of lieutenant was issued in March 2004. According to the complaint filed this week, a list of possible candidates for promotion to lieutenant was sent to all OCPD captains in February 2004, requesting they rank the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses. Despite being as qualified as the other candidates, Bunting’s name was not included on the list for possible promotion to lieutenant, according to the complaint.

“Three candidates were promoted to lieutenant,” the complaint reads. “Of these three candidates, the plaintiff is senior to two of them. The plaintiff was as qualified, if not more qualified, than the other candidates who were promoted to lieutenant.”

In September 2004, Bunting filed a formal complaint against the town alleging his employer had violated his USERRA rights when it bypassed him for promotion. The USERRA prohibits discrimination with respect to promotions, among other things, against individuals who are members of uniformed services or have obligations to perform uniformed services. The complaint was filed with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Veterans’ Employment and Training Service (DOL-VETS).

DOL-VETS investigated Bunting’s complaint, found it had merit and communicated that finding to the town of Ocean City in December 2004. Since returning to the OCPD after his period of active service in 2004, Bunting has applied for promotion to lieutenant two other times in 2005 and 2007, and each time he has been denied. In the second count of the complaint filed this week, Bunting, through his attorney, alleges he was bypassed for promotion both times because of his earlier complaint about the perceived initial slight.

“The defendants discriminated against the plaintiff by failing to consider him for promotion to OCPD lieutenant, despite being as qualified as the other candidates, because he took action to enforce his USERRA rights,” the complaint reads.

Essentially, Bunting’s complaint filed this week includes two counts, the first of which relates to his initial pass over for promotion because of his status as an active reserve officer with the Coast Guard and the second of which relates to his being bypassed because he filed a formal complaint against the OCPD and the town of Ocean City.

In Count 1, Bunting is seeking an immediate promotion to lieutenant with an effective date of March 1, 2004 as well as damages including lost wages, lost employee benefits, bonuses and vacation benefits in the amount of $350,000. In Count 2, Bunting is seeking an immediate promotion to lieutenant effective March 1, 2005, with the same conditions regarding the $350,000 in lost wages etc.

The discrimination lawsuit filed against the department and the town this week is just the latest in a recent spate of similar civil actions. In May, a U.S. District Court judge ruled favorably on an age discrimination suit filed by a handful of senior OCPD officers bypassed for promotion. As recently as last month, another OCPD officer filed a formal complaint when she was suspended because of an alleged violation of a “no contact order” prohibiting her to come in contact with her same-sex partner who had been arrested on minor charges years earlier.

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