Forsyth County commissioners approved Monday paying a former sheriff’s deputy and Iraq War veteran $96,000 to settle a lawsuit alleging that Sheriff Bill Schatzman broke federal law by firing him less than a year after he returned from serving in Iraq.
As part of the settlement, Schatzman and Forsyth County officials do not admit any wrongdoing in the termination of former Sgt. Michael T. Russell. The U.S. Department of Justice filed the lawsuit June 7 in U.S. District Court on behalf of Russell. The lawsuit alleged that Schatzman fired Russell in November 2010 after Russell bought $100 tickets in a motorcycle raffle organized by Dave Griffith, who was running against Schatzman for sheriff. Russell said he just wanted to win the motorcycle and was never told buying the tickets would get him fired.
The vote on the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners to settle the case was unanimous.
Schatzman declined to comment Monday, saying it was a personnel issue, but in answering the lawsuit, he denied Russell’s allegations that he broke federal law that protects soldiers for a year after returning from overseas from being fired from their jobs without cause. Valerie L. Meyer, an attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice who represents Russell, declined to comment and referred questions to the department’s Office of Public Affairs. A spokesperson could not immediately be reached for comment Monday.
A phone number could not be found for Russell, who was serving with the Army National Guard in Afghanistan when the lawsuit was filed last year. He had worked with the Sheriff’s Office since 1989.
In February 2010, Russell completed a one-year deployment to Iraq and returned to his position with the sheriff’s office. On Nov. 29, 2010, Schatzman fired Russell without cause, the lawsuit said.
Russell initially filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Veterans Employment and Training Service, which investigated, according to the Justice Department. That agency determined the complaint had merit and referred the matter to the Justice Department.
A trial was set to begin Oct. 1 in U.S. District Court in Greensboro, according to court records.
Russell, Schatzman and the county entered into a consent decree to settle the lawsuit, according to court documents attached to the county’s resolution. The consent decree will serve as a “final and binding resolution in full disposition of all claims arising out of the facts as alleged in the complaint.”
As part of the agreement, Schatzman and the county shall continue to comply with federal law related to discrimination against service members and they shall not take any action that could be considered retaliation against anyone, including Russell, under that federal law.
The consent decree also says that Schatzman and the county are prohibited from stating that Russell’s termination was the result of disciplinary proceedings or for performance-related reasons.
Journal reporter Wesley Young contributed to this report.