OCEAN CITY — Roughly three months after a federal jury entered a split decision of sorts in a discrimination lawsuit filed by an Ocean City Police Department sergeant, who alleged he was twice passed over for promotion to lieutenant when he was pressed into active military service with the Coast Guard, a federal judge last week officially closed the case with a judgment in favor of the town.
In November 2008, OCPD Sgt. William Bunting filed a civil suit against the town of Ocean City and its police department alleging he was bypassed for promotion on two separate occasions because of his reserve status with the Coast Guard.
Bunting, an OCPD officer since 1984, was called into active service as a reserve officer with the Coast Guard following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and alleged in his complaint he was bypassed for promotion because of his military obligations.
In the complaint, Bunting alleged he was first denied promotion in 2004 when he was serving as a reserve officer in the Coast Guard. He also alleged he was bypassed 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.
In November, a federal jury entered a mixed verdict reflecting a stalemate of sorts, essentially siding with Bunting on some aspects of the case and agreeing with the town of Ocean City on certain others. The jury found that Bunting carried his burden of proof that his protected activity under USERRA was a substantial motivating factor in his being passed over for promotion the second time, but the jury also found the town had carried its burden of proving he would have been passed over for promotion initially anyway.
While neither side could claim victory with the jury’s split decision in November, it appeared Bunting clearly had the most at stake. In the complaint, Bunting was seeking an immediate promotion to lieutenant effective March 2004 along with damages including lost wages, lost benefits, bonuses and vacation benefits totaling $350,000. Because there was no affirmative outcome, the plaintiff is not entitled to the promotion or the damages.
While the jury’s split verdict in November left the case somewhat open-ended, Senior U.S. District Court Judge William Nickerson officially ended any more suspense in the case when he officially entered a judgment in favor of the town of Ocean City and its police department last Wednesday.