January 12, 2013

Fired Waterville officer sues city in federal court on disability claim

Jeffrey C. Bearce, now a lieutenant at Kennebec County Sheriff's Office, won 3-1 discrimination decision before Maine Human Rights Commission

By Betty Adams badams@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

A fired Waterville police sergeant has taken his claim of disability discrimination to federal court.

click image to enlarge

Jeffrey Bearce is serving as a lieutenant with the Kennebec County Sheriff's Office, and is pursuing a lawsuit in federal court against the City of Waterville for alleged disability discrimination.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

Meantime, Jeffrey C. Bearce has donned a new uniform as a lieutenant in the law enforcement division of the Kennebec County Sheriff's Office.

Bearce won support last August from the Maine Human Rights Commission, which voted 3-1 to back his claim that he was subject to illegal workplace discrimination by the city of Waterville. However, efforts to settle the claim since then were unsuccessful, according to a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Bangor against the city.

Bearce and his attorneys, Stephen Langsdorf and Matthew J. LaMourie, charge the city with violating Bearce's civil rights under the Americans with Disabilities and Maine Human Rights acts.

Now 52, Bearce worked full-time for the Waterville department for 23 years until he was terminated in February 2011.

Bearce had been fighting leukemia since 2009 and was on medical leave -- for which fellow employees donated vacation time so he could be paid -- for about year until the end of 2010 when he brought to the city a note from his doctor clearing him to work without restriction.

Instead of returning him immediately, the city had Bearce evaluated. As he was undergoing those examinations, his cancer returned with a prognosis that he would be out for another year, according to a human rights commission investigator's report, so the city terminated his employment.

Bearce had told city officials he needed to return to work to keep health insurance until he qualified for Medicare in a year in a half, according to the investigator's report.

After the commission vote to find reasonable grounds that the city discriminated against him by failing to provide a reasonable accommodation -- such as desk work -- when he attempted to return, a conciliation period began. That ended without a settlement in Oct. 10.

"The city refused to participate in mediation or make any effort to resolve the matter," Langsdorf said. "We would like to try to resolve it, and we're basically being stone-walled."

"The city takes the position that it hasn't violated any rights of Mr. Bearce," said Edward Benjamin, an attorney representing the city through its insurer, the Maine Municipal Risk Pool. "The city did everything it was required to do and didn't make any additional settlement offers to him. He was obviously free to file a lawsuit and we can sort it out there."

Meantime, Bearce said he is feeling better -- he had a bone marrow transplant in 2011 -- and his cancer is in remission, and he recently joined the sheriff's department. In the lieutenant's role, Bearce is responsible for court security and transport among other duties.

He said it involves more administrative work than he did as police sergeant.

"I'm happy to be back in law enforcement and doing what I do," Bearce said. "All I ever wanted to do was return to work for the city of Waterville and serve the citizens of Waterville as I had done for 24 years. At least with the sheriff's department, I can do it peripherally."

Under the lawsuit, Bearce is seeking back-pay and benefits as well as other compensation.

"It's very unfortunate the city of Waterville didn't accommodate him. He has a long history of being a very good police officer," Langsdorf said. "He was able to return (to work) and should have been returned at an earlier time."

Langsdorf said the city's failure to return Bearce to his post immediately cost him a significant loss of disability pay and benefits.

"Had (Bearce) been returned to duty as a sergeant for a period of two weeks at any time between Dec. 29, 2010, and Feb. 22, 2011, he would have been eligible to receive short-term disability benefits from the defendant for any subsequent time off due to a health-related reason," the lawsuit claims.

Betty Adams -- 621-5631
badams@centralmaine.com

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