OMAHA — More than a dozen Lincoln firefighters and supporters of Troy Hurd, including the former firefighter recruit at the heart of Hurd’s discrimination lawsuit, came to hear attorneys make their final pleas to jurors Friday in the case that pits him against the city.
Hurd, a captain at Lincoln Fire and Rescue, alleges he faced retaliation after he reported his belief that firefighter trainer Eddie Mueller, now a captain, was treating Sara Khalil differently because she’s a woman born in Iraq.
On the other side, Assistant City Attorney Elizabeth Elliott agreed there was retaliation.
“But it’s not the city of Lincoln that is retaliating. The only person here retaliating is Mr. Hurd,” she shot back. “When he doesn’t get what he wants, he’ll make you pay."
In a Facebook post, she said Hurd said he would "get revenge on all these mf-ers. I won’t stop until they write a big f-ing check.”
Elliott said it all started when Hurd was frustrated that he wasn't put in charge of the recruit class. He started documenting everything he disagreed with after that. Only twice in 11 pages of issues did Khalil’s name even come up, she said.
While Mueller may have told Khalil to "sit the f- down,” he cussed at everybody, she said. He wasn’t singling Khalil out because she was a woman or because she was from Iraq, Elliott said.
It may not be the best business practice, she said. “But it’s not discrimination."
Elliott said Khalil, who is a Lincoln police officer now, struggled on paramedic calls, but that had nothing to do with her race or sex. No one was out to get her. That’s why she’s still working for the city, she said.
“There is absolutely nothing that would make a reasonable person think that Ms. Khalil was being discriminated against,” Elliott said.
She said Hurd just saw it as an opportunity to get back at the people he thought had wronged him.
In a radio interview about the lawsuit, when asked if the discrimination he’d seen was based on a person’s race or sex, Hurd said "no, nothing like that.” Instead, he said it was related to performance.
Elliott said he was telling the truth then.
“It wasn’t until he realized that by saying it was discrimination they can put down all those zeros on that verdict form,” she said, referring to his attorney's suggestion that, if the jury finds in Hurd’s favor, that the amount they award him "should be big."
“That’s when it became about race and gender,” Elliott said. “Not until he could get something out of it.”
She said no one is denying that Lincoln Fire and Rescue’s discipline process is inconsistent, but that isn’t retaliation and, when Hurd was written up, he deserved it and pointed to troubles in his personal life that predated his complaint.
But Hurd's attorney, Paige Fiedler, said after Hurd filed a formal complaint over Khalil’s treatment, people in the department started looking at him as a troublemaker, he got passed up for promotions and written up for things that didn’t lead to write-ups for others.
Assistant Chief Pat Borer called Hurd a f-ing idiot in a meeting of department brass, she said. And in another meeting, Fiedler said, a now-retired battalion chief, Leo Benes, said he was worried Hurd would end up the fall guy, but if he would just keep quiet, it all would go away.
She said she could snipe all day about the battalion chief who did this, or the assistant chief who did that, "but workers are supposed to have that other layer of protection.”
Fiedler said an employer has the responsibility to fix a problem if it occurs. Yet, she said, Mayor Chris Beutler "pretty much washed his hands of the whole thing," turning the decision over to Tom Casady, the city’s public safety director.
Casady ultimately rejected the findings of a two-year investigation by Kimberley Taylor-Riley, the city’s director of equity and diversity, who concluded Lincoln Fire and Rescue command staff did retaliate against Hurd and treated him differently than others.
“This is where I think that the city failed most spectacularly. This is what stinks all the way to the top,” the attorney said. “They did not lift a finger to fix it."
Fiedler said they simply removed retaliatory disciplinary actions from Hurd’s personnel file. But they rejected recommendations in Taylor-Riley’s report to change the culture within the department and prevent it from happening again.
In a performance review, the city called her report thorough and fair, Fiedler said, but in court accused her of being biased.
"They eat their own as soon as they don’t say what they want them to say,” Fiedler said.
Ultimately, she said, Hurd ended up "torpedoing his career" for a woman he hardly knew.
“These folks live in a moral vacuum where violating civil rights is par for the course, but breaking that cone of silence and telling somebody about it, that’s the real problem,” Fiedler said.
For the sake of the people of Lincoln, she said, this has to stop.
“And the only way it’s going to stop is if the people who did this are held accountable,” Fiedler said.
The jury of six men and six women got the case to begin deliberations at 12:20 p.m. and will resume Tuesday.