Bluffton settles lawsuit with police officer who claimed unfair suspension, demotion

astice@islandpacket.comMay 20, 2013 

A Bluffton police officer who alleged he was unfairly suspended, demoted and forced to take a pay cut in retaliation for complaints against the former police chief has settled his lawsuit with the town.

Christian Gonzales will get back-pay and be reinstated to his former rank, according to the settlement.

The town recently released the terms of an April 26 agreement in response to a public-records request from The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette.

Gonzales sued the town, then-Chief David McAllister and town manager Anthony Barrett in March 2012, alleging he was punished for filing complaints about his former boss.

In his suit, Gonzales said he was suspended for a week, demoted from senior sergeant to officer and given a 5 percent pay cut after he told Barrett that McAllister treated him unfairly.

The settlement says Gonzales will be reinstated as a senior sergeant -- now referred to as a master police sergeant -- and will be paid the difference between the salary he drew after his Sept. 14, 2011, demotion and what he would have earned had his rank remained unchanged.

The town has agreed to pay Gonzales the salary he would have received during a one-week suspension that also began on Sept. 14, 2011 -- a punishment imposed on Gonzales after the town said its investigation of his complaints against McAllister were unfounded. He will also be paid the difference between the average bonus and the bonuses he received.

The agreement, which includes a clause prohibiting either party from making disparaging comments about the other, does not give the exact amount Gonzales will be paid.

Barrett said in an email Monday that the pay difference Gonzales will receive is about $6,300, and the bonus difference is about $490. Barrett also said town officials are "pleased to have this behind us and look to many improvements in our police department."

Gonzales' attorney, Nancy Bloodgood of Charleston, declined to release the amount or comment further. Bloodgood has represented other Bluffton police officers who have sued the town, including former police Lt. Katherine Sours, who won $236,000 in two settlements after she alleged her age was a factor in her 2009 termination.

The town also will pay $35,000 to cover Gonzales' legal costs and fees, according to the agreement.

All references to the issues that prompted the lawsuit will be removed from Gonzales' employment file.

Gonzales' lawsuit said McAllister retaliated against him after he asked to be transferred so that he did not have to report to a particular officer. That officer, Gonzales asserted, was a "favorite" of McAllister's.

The suit also said McAllister once shoved Gonzales and attempted to embarrass him in front of subordinates on several occasions.

Gonzales took his complaints to Barrett in 2011. His suit says Barrett launched an investigation that focused only on the shoving accusation and resulted in the weeklong suspension, demotion and pay cut.

In a news release issued last year in response to Gonzales' suit, Barrett said an investigation that included interviews with 10 witnesses found McAllister did not shove the officer, a finding later upheld by a grievance panel selected in accordance with town policy.

The town, Barrett and McAllister have denied Gonzales' claims. The agreement states that both parties "acknowledge that this settlement is a (compromise) of disputed and contested claims and that payment of the settlement amount is being made to avoid further litigation."

Follow reporter Allison Stice at twitter.com/IPBG_Allison.

Related content:

2 lawsuits brought by Bluffton police pending in federal court, July 3, 2012

Bluffton police officer files suit against police chief, town manager, June 29, 2012

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