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Jury finds that sheriff’s department discriminated against officer because he was an Iraq war veteran

Earlier this month, a jury in California reportedly found that Orange County Sheriff’s Department violated the Uniformed Services Employment and Re-employment Rights Act (USERRA) when it discriminated against a deputy sheriff because of his service as a Marine in the Iraq war. The veteran, Scott Montoya, won the Navy Cross for his actions during the 2003 Battle of Baghdad.

According to news accounts of the case, Montoya’s attorneys presented evidence that, among other things, Montoya’s co-workers and superiors in the Orange County Sheriff’s Department repeatedly mocked his combat heroics, spread false rumors about him, sabotaged his locker, encouraged citizens to file complaints against him, suggested that they would not back him up on dangerous patrol calls, and subjected him to surveillance while he was off duty. Montoya developed post-traumatic stress disorder–not from his time serving as a Marine but–from this campaign of harassment that he experienced at the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.

Despite the jury’s verdict, the attorney for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department is reportedly arguing that Montoya is entitled to no monetary compensation for the hostile work environment he endured. This is because USERRA, unlike some employment discrimination statutes, does not allow plaintiffs to recover money for non-economic harms, such as anxiety, humiliation, and psychological trauma. Instead, to recover monetary compensation, a plaintiff must have lost pay as a result of the discrimination. Montoya’s attorneys have argued that Montoya did lose pay as a result of the discrimination because the Orange County Sheriff’s Department fired him. However, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department claims it fired Montoya for valid reasons.

This case is a relatively uncommon USERRA case. Most USERRA cases involve employers who do not want to give a military servicemember his job back when he returns from a deployment or who do not want to accommodate a servicemember’s training schedule–both of which USERRA requires employers to do. If you are a current or former member of the military and you have experienced any type of discrimination because of your military service; your employer has refused to give you your job back when you returned from military service; or your employer is not willing to accommodate your military training schedule, you should contact an experienced employment lawyer to learn more about your rights.