OMAHA — In the span of 45 minutes, jurors heard starkly contrasting descriptions of the man at the counsel table, a Lincoln Fire and Rescue captain who sued the city alleging the department’s top brass retaliated against him for reporting harassment in 2011.
One side painted Troy Hurd as a man punished for having the courage to speak up; the other, as a man with a score to settle.
“This is a case about whether Troy Hurd should have been penalized for doing the right thing,” Gretna attorney Kelly Brandon said in opening statements in a U.S. District Courtroom on Tuesday.
She said Hurd, who has been with LFR for 18 years, lives by the words: “What’s right is right. What’s wrong is wrong."
In 2011, while assigned to the training academy, he told his supervisor he’d witnessed a fellow trainer cursing at Sara Khalil, a Kurdish firefighter recruit from Iraq, and learned that another of the trainers asked her if she needed "a f-ing interpreter.” He believed the two were harassing Khalil based on her gender and national origin.
“That decision forever changes the course of Captain Hurd’s career,” Brandon said. “Troy Hurd pays a high price for doing the right thing, for following the rules."
She said his report fell on deaf ears, and Hurd was "rewarded with retribution, retaliation and ruin.”
Khalil ultimately was terminated and now works as a Lincoln police officer.
During what is expected to be a two-week trial, Brandon will lay out her case that within LFR existed an atmosphere of retaliation against people, like Hurd, who spoke out, but the city will try to prove that something else was at play.
“This case is not about the city of Lincoln retaliating against Troy Hurd, but about Hurd having a vendetta against anyone he thought wronged him,” Assistant City Attorney Jocelyn Golden told the jury.
She said they would hear plenty of evidence about how Hurd said multiple times that he wanted to make the city of Lincoln and LFR pay.
“Because, the reality of the situation is that Hurd thought he was entitled to be treated differently, to not be disciplined for his errors and to be promoted when he was not the most-qualified candidate,” Golden said.
She said in 2011, Hurd and Eddie Mueller, then a firefighter and now a department captain, had a falling out before both were assigned to the training academy. There, they butted heads over how to run it.
When Mueller used foul language when telling a recruit to sit down and listen, Golden said, he was given a written discipline the same day.
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“But this did not quiet the conflict between the two,” she said.
Golden said the decision was made to remove Hurd from the training academy because Mueller had prior experience teaching recruits.
“This was not done to punish Hurd or praise Mueller,” she said. “This was a decision that simply needed to be made to ensure there was no more drama and that the recruits finished their training without the personality conflict distracting them.”
She said it wasn’t about Hurd’s complaints, but about the greater good of the operation of LFR. But Hurd didn’t take it that way.
Golden painted Hurd as someone who couldn’t handle constructive criticism and blamed others.
“The evidence will show, despite Hurd’s attempts to blame all the chiefs he worked with over the past seven years to make them pay, no one other than Hurd himself created the circumstances he finds himself in,” she said.
Golden said the city wasn’t on a mission to make Hurd feel bad or hinder his career. He simply received some minor disciplinary write-ups because of his own errors and wasn’t promoted because he wasn’t the most-qualified candidate.
Golden said the Equal Opportunity Commission reviewed Hurd’s allegations and found no reasonable cause.
But, on the other side, Hurd’s attorney pointed to a 64-page report by Kimberley Taylor-Riley, the city’s director of equity and diversity, who in 2014 concluded after a two-year investigation that LFR command staff did retaliate against Hurd and treated him differently than others.
“You might think at this point that the city undertook some serious soul-searching,” Brandon said. "You’d be wrong.”
She said in response to the report, the city conducted two training sessions and removed the disciplinary actions from Hurd’s personnel file, ignoring many other recommendations.
Meanwhile, Brandon said, Hurd isn’t the same person he was before and often questions whether it was all worth it.
“At the end of this trial you will have the opportunity to fix the city’s mistakes,” she said.
In the end, it will be for the jury to decide who is to blame.