OCEAN CITY – Less than a month after a long-time Ocean City Police sergeant filed a discrimination civil suit against the town and its police department alleging he was by-passed for promotion to lieutenant when he was activated into service as a U.S. Coast Guard reserve officer following the Sept. 11 terrorists attacks, Ocean City and the OCPD last week filed a formal answer to the complaint, denying many of its allegations and evoking a statute of limitation defense.
OCPD Sgt. William Bunting, an officer with the department since 1984, in November 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 by-passed for promotion because of his status as a reserve officer with the Coast Guard.
According to the complaint, Bunting was first passed over for promotion to lieutenant in 2004 when he returned to the department after being called into active duty with the Coast Guard in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2002. In a second count in the complaint, Bunting alleges he was by-passed 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.
Last week, however, attorneys for the town of Ocean City and its police department filed a formal answer to Bunting’s complaint, claiming, for one thing, the action is barred by the statute of limitations. In addition, the town’s answer to the suit systematically addresses each of the allegations spelled out in Bunting’s complaint, admitting some of the rather mundane elements of the case, but denying many of its salient points including he was denied promotion because of his obligations to the Coast Guard.
Bunting, who started with the 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 Bunting’s complaint, 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.
However, the formal answer filed by the town and the OCPD last week includes a different version of the time line for the promotion process as it related to Bunting. For example, the answer admits a list of candidates was supplied to the captains to consider for promotion, but denies Bunting ever applied for promotion at that time.
In another disputed element in the case, Bunting’s complaint alleges, “three candidates were promoted to lieutenant and of these three, the plaintiff is senior to two of them.” However, in its formal answer to the allegations, the OCPD asserts seniority is not a qualification for promotion.
In a separate element in the formal complaint filed by Bunting in November, the plaintiff alleges he was denied promotion because of his obligations to the Coast Guard. “The plaintiff asserts that he has been denied promotion because he is a member of and has an obligation to perform service in a uniformed service,” the complaint reads. However, in its formal answer, the OCPD denies Bunting was not promoted because of his military obligations.
In September 2004, Bunting filed a formal complaint against the town alleging his employer had violated his Uniformed Services Employment and Re-Employment Rights Act (USERRA) rights when it by-passed 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.
In the civil suit filed last month, Bunting alleges his USERRA compliant filed in 2004 was held against him in subsequent attempts at promotion in 2005 and 2007. However, in its formal answer filed last week, the OCPD denies Bunting was by-passed for promotion because of earlier action he took against the department.