New Trial Ordered In Police Case

OCEAN CITY — One year after the Maryland Court of Special Appeals dismissed a discrimination suit filed in November 2008 by an Ocean City Police sergeant, who alleged he was passed over for promotion to lieutenant when he was pressed into active military service, the higher U.S. Court of Appeals last week reversed the decision.

In November 2008, OCPD Sgt. William Bunting filed a civil suit against the town of Ocean City and its police department alleging he was by-passed 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 by-passed for promotion because of his military obligations.

Bunting alleged in the complaint he was denied promotion first in 2004 when he was serving as a reserve officer in the Coast Guard. He alleged he was by-passed 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.

However, Senior U.S. District Court Judge William Nickerson last January dismissed the case, agreeing Bunting was not by-passed for promotion because of his Coast Guard reserve officer status, but rather because of his overall lack of qualifications and lingering questions surrounding his loyalty to OCPD Chief Bernadette DiPino.

Bunting appealed the U.S. District Court’s decision to dismiss the promotion discrimination suit and the case has slogged through the appeal process for over 12 months. Last week, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal, affirming in part and vacating in part, the decision of the lower court. The case will now be sent back to the U.S. District Court for a new trial.

According to the U.S. Court of Appeals opinion, Bunting failed to successfully argue he had been passed over for promotion initially in 2004 because he had been pressed into active Coast Guard reserve duty following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Bunting argued initially he had not been made aware of the promotion opportunity in 2004, but the U.S. Court of Appeals disagreed.

However, the higher court did agree there appeared to be some validity to Bunting’s claim he was passed over for promotion a second time because he filed formal complaints about the perceived slight initially. In essence, the U.S. Court of Appeals agreed there was some merit to Bunting’s claims of retaliation and on that point, remanded the case back to U.S. District Court for a new trial.