CORPUS CHRISTI - Former Duval County Sheriff's deputy and United States Army Reservist Jonathan J. Melendez resolved a claim against the Duval County Sheriff's Department that states the department violated the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA).
The claim states that the sheriff was in the wrong when he terminated Melendez on two occasions and retaliating against him after Melendez pursued his claims in violation of USERRA, announced Acting U.S. Attorney Abe Martinez and Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division in a press release.
Under the terms of the settlement, Duval County has agreed to compensate Melendez for his lost wages and benefits and pay him liquidated damages.
“There was a dispute and it was resolved,” said Duval County Attorney Baldemar Gutierrez. “There's no admission of fault or liability on the sheriff's part or the county. It was an employment issue that was resolved. Officer Melendez is a respected officer who continues to serve the community as a law enforcement officer with the San Diego Police Department.”
Congress enacted USERRA to encourage non-career service in the uniformed services by reducing employment disadvantages; to minimize the disruption to the lives of persons performing military service, their employers and others by providing for the prompt reemployment of such persons upon their completion of such service; and to prohibit discrimination against persons because of their service in the uniformed services or if they pursue a claim under USERRA.
Specialist Melendez was hired as a sheriff's deputy on March 14, 2014, by the Duval County Sheriff’s Department. On Oct. 8, 2015, Melendez enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserves. Martinez alleged that Duval County discriminated against Melendez in violation of USERRA on four occasions. These occasions included Melendez’s termination from the Sheriff’s Department on Jan. 1, 2016, while he was on leave for active military duty, his belated rehire upon his return from military duty in April 2016 and his termination again in October 2016 after he continued to pursue a USERRA lost wages claim against his former employer.
According to Melendez, he and a recruiter gave the sheriff's department his orders for four months of basic training, and was surprised to receive a letter from the department that said his services were no longer needed by the department.
Melendez reached out to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas, who represented him in court.
Melendez and the sheriff agreed that several months after he rejoined the department, he was fired due to budget cuts. But Melendez felt it was odd that after his second termination, the sheriff hired several deputies.
According to Duval County Sheriff Romeo Ramirez, he didn't know that Melendez was out for basic training until he received letters and phone calls from Melendez's attorney. Ramirez said the deputies they hired were to compensate for the deputies the sheriff's department lost to another agency before Melendez's termination.
Ramirez, who says he has always supported veterans, said that he was confused about how he violated Melendez's rights considering he didn't enlist in the military until after he was employed with the department.
“Members of our armed service’s reserve forces make many sacrifices, including spending months or years away from their jobs and families,” Martinez said. “When they are deployed in the service of our country, their employment rights must be protected. They are entitled to retain their civilian employment and to the protections of federal law that prevent them from being subject to discrimination based upon their military obligations. My office and the Department of Justice are committed to ensuring that individuals do not lose their rights while they are protecting ours.”
“The legal rights of members of our armed forces, who sacrifice their lives every day defending our nation and its freedoms, must be respected,” Gore said. “This settlement sends a strong message that the Department of Justice is steadfast in its efforts to protect the rights of our service members, their families and all veterans of the United States.”
The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) referred the matter following an investigation by their Veterans’ Employment and Training Service. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas (SDTX) and the Employment Litigation Section of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division are handling the case and work collaboratively with the DOL to protect the jobs and benefits of military service members.