Lawsuit: EMT claims firing for Facebook post criticizing mayor
She alleges she was terminated as a result of a post that criticized how the mayor handled the arrest of a retired firefighter and razing of his home
By Rob McDaniel
SOMERSET, Ky. — A former Somerset paramedic and volunteer firefighter is suing the city after she was allegedly fired for a Facebook post criticizing the mayor.
Crystal Norton is listed as the plaintiff on the complaint which was filed Thursday in U.S. District Court. Mayor Eddie Girdler is listed as a defendant, along with the City of Somerset.
The complaint claims that the defendants violated Norton’s civil rights when Girdler terminated her employment as a paramedic for the city because Norton “engaged in speech critical of the mayor’s handling of public concern in advance of an election.”
Girdler is being sued in his official and individual capacity, and is accused of firing Norton because her Facebook comments did not support his bid for reelection as mayor in the upcoming election.
According to the complaint, the comments were critical of the mayor’s handling of a condemnation and nuisance abatement issue where the city and mayor stand accused of fabricating circumstances that enabled them to destroy the home of a retired city firefighter, William Roberts.
Roberts’ home was destroyed on Sept. 19 after an incident with city officials that resulted in him being charged with menacing and obstructing governmental operations. Roberts was arrested and lodged in the Pulaski County Detention Center.
While off duty on Sept. 22, Norton shared on her Facebook page a Sept. 20 story from the Commonwealth Journal regarding the razing of Robert’s residence, along with a comment sharing her opinion of how the city and the mayor handled the situation.
“This is absolutely unbelievable! The worst part is I can’t believe people are standing behind our crooked mayor still! I don’t care the conditions of his home you HAVE to give him a written notice and a date to be out by, not just black ball him and throw him into jail and then tear his home down while you conveniently have him locked up. There was a better way to go about this ... I hope he throws the kitchen sink at the mayor and everyone involved for such a dirty move! Such a shame, I didn’t know somerset [sic] was that crooked! Sure hope we get a good, Godly mayor in jan [sic] to take this city upward and out of the sewers,” Norton wrote in her Facebook comment.
According to the complaint, the following day, on Sept. 23, Norton, who was again off duty, received instructions that the mayor wanted to see her and she was ordered to report to Girdler’s office that afternoon.
After arriving at City Hall, Norton was escorted to Girdler’s office where she claims City Attorney Carrie Wiese; human resource director for the city, Michelle King, who had directed Norton to come to Girdler’s office; and EMS chief, Billy Duncan were present and waiting on her arrival.
According to the complaint, Girdler made it clear that he had asked Norton to his office on her day off because of her Facebook post the previous day. Norton claims that Girdler told her that the post was a violation of official city policy, specifically citing the city’s social media policy.
“The mayor then went on a tirade about her post being critical of his conduct concerning Mr. Roberts’ and his perception that she was telling voters that the mayor was not ‘Godly’ enough to be reelected as mayor,” the complaint reads.
The complaint goes on to accuse Girdler of saying that Norton knew “nothing about the government matters,” that “Christians do not attack other Christians like she did,” and that her “comments could result in him filing a slander lawsuit.”
The 10-minute meeting allegedly concluded in Girdler informing Norton that he was terminating her employment, effective immediately. Norton was instructed to turn in her paramedic gear within 24 hours.
According to the complaint, a few days later Norton was contacted by Mike Phelps from the Somerset City Fire Department, who informed her that Somerset Fire Department Chief Tyler Jasper had ordered Norton to return her Somerset City Fire Department gear, which Norton did immediately.
“The Mayor’s conduct towards Mr. Roberts was of such a substantial magnitude of public concern that the mayor himself felt compelled to go onto social media to attempt to politically spin the collective negative outrage the community felt regarding his conduct. The mayor used the social media platform to make negative personal judgments about Mr. Roberts and his standard of living and to make demonstrably false statements relating to the razing of Mr. Roberts’ residence and childhood home in an attempt to justify his conduct,” the complaint reads.
The complaint claims that Norton “engaged in constitutionally protected speech and/or conduct protected by the First Amendment” when she posted comments to Facebook.
The complaint continues, stating Norton’s “protected speech in no way referred to or affected her employment with the city and/or impaired the city, the mayor, or any other supervisor’s ability to perform their duties.”
According to the complaint, Norton is seeking the following damages and remedies:
• Reinstatement of her employment by the City of Somerset to her prior position as a paramedic under substantially the same terms and conditions as if she had never been unlawfully terminated.
• Payment for all lost wages and the values of lost benefits from the date of her termination to the date of reinstatement, and in the event reinstatement is determined to be unreasonable under the circumstances, she be awarded an amount for future lost wages and all lost benefits.
• Damages for pain and suffering and humiliation and emotional distress as a result of the “illegal conduct of the Defendants.”
• Attorney fees.
• Pre- and post-judgment interest.
Norton is also seeking “that Defendant City of Somerset’s official social media policy, as written and applied, be held unconstitutional to the extent it overreaches and deprives employees of the City of Somerset their right to engage in protected free speech.”
Somerset City Attorney, Carrie Wiese issued a statement regarding the lawsuit, saying:
"Mr. Norfleet, by filing this politically motivated and baseless lawsuit prior to the Tuesday election, is attempting to influence the mayors election and use the court system to get the newspaper to print something against the City of Somerset and Mayor. The opponents of the City and Mayor attempted to trash the City by using the Lexington Coalition and now are using the court system to provide more dirty election tactics.
“Mr. Norfleet has been threatening to file the lawsuit for many weeks and the City of Somerset has declined to meet his demands. Mr. Norfleet sent his demand letter on October 3, 2014 to the city.
“The employee was terminated in September and Mr. Norfleet conveniently filed days before the election for press coverage. Legal action involving personnel cannot be discussed in public by the Mayor or City."
Following the city’s comments that “opponents of the city and mayor attempted to trash the city by using the Lexington Coalition and are now using the court system to provide more dirty election tactics,” mayoral candidate Alan Keck responded claiming that he had no involvement with any pending litigation the city is currently involved in.
“This is yet another example of the mayor placing blame on someone else instead of accepting responsibility for his actions,” Keck said. “I had nothing to do with him razing the house of Mr. Roberts or the subsequent firing of Mrs. Norton whom he perceived as a supporter of mine. Having already publicly accused me of lying, to now imply that I am somehow responsible for any of this is: Inexcusable, reckless, and slanderous. Eddie Girdler made the decision to fire Mrs. Norton for her Facebook post, no one else. “
The Commonwealth Journal obtained the Oct. 3 letter referenced in the city’s response.
The letter, addressed to Girdler and Wiese, informed the city that Norfleet would be representing Norton in the civil rights case and requested that “anyone acting on the city’s behalf, shall not contact Ms. Norton regarding the illegal termination of her employment.”
The letter continued by notifying the city that “the City of Somerset has an affirmative obligation to preserve and protect all information, records, media devices, files and documents pertaining to Ms. Norton’s employment with the city,” and requested Norton’s entire employment file, computer hard drives used by all city officials pertaining to Ms. Norton, cell phone records and data belonging to all city officials, and any other relevant information.
“Mrs. Wiese, who on behalf of the city, reached out to me, on behalf of Ms. Norton, and made an unsolicited oral offer of settlement,” Norfleet said. “I followed up with Mrs. Wiese by requesting her to put the offer in writing. She led me to believe the offer was being drafted and that I would receive shortly thereafter. However, the city kept giving excuses to delay providing the written offer.”
According to email records obtained by the Commonwealth Journal, Norfleet and Wiese made reference to a settlement discussion which took place on Oct. 7, 2014.
The emails between Norfleet and Wiese indicate that they had conversations regarding settlements for both the Norton and Roberts cases. On Oct. 22, Wiese emailed Norfleet:
“We are working on settlement offers/agreements to send over for your review but I need to know if you could send us a time sheet or statement of some sort as to your time spent on each of the cases so that we have an amount to refer to the attorney fees which the city would be asked to pay. If you could send me something with those amounts (Norton and Roberts), I can hopefully get something to you in the next 1-3 days for you to review with your clients.”
Norfleet said that after the settlements being delayed several times he “notified Mrs. Wiese of our concern and notified her that if I did not receive the written offer, I was going to move forward.”
©2014 the Commonwealth Journal (Somerset, Ky.)