TOPEKA — The U.S. Justice Department in a federal lawsuit says the Kansas Department of Health and Environment fired an employee in 2010 because she was about to be deployed as a member of the Army National Guard.
Staff Sgt. Stacey Gonzales, of Garden City, is asking for lost wages and benefits as a result of KDHE’s “reckless disregard” for a federal law that protects the employment rights of military servicemembers. The Justice Department filed the civil lawsuit on Monday in federal court in Kansas.
Gonzales worked as a KDHE-funded disease intervention specialist in the Finney County Health Department. She traveled through western Kansas “performing disease intervention and prevention activities” and maintaining records on behalf of KDHE, the lawsuit said. She was hired to the position in 2001 and has served in the National Guard since 1998.
Ashley Goss, who is now the deputy secretary at KDHE, supervised Gonzales at the Finney County agency. Gonzales also reported to KDHE administrator Jennifer VandeVelde.
The lawsuit describes hostile encounters between Gonzales and VandeVelde about her military service. After returning from a 2007 deployment, the lawsuit said, VandeVelde questioned whether injuries Gonzales received while deployed would impact her ability to do her job.
“VandeVelde asked this question in a hostile tone and Gonzales understood her to be implying that Gonzales’ service injuries might be a problem at work,” the lawsuit said. “Gonzales responded ‘no’ and also told VandeVelde that such a question about her military service was inappropriate.”
In March 2010, Gonzales asked to take time off to attend a 10-day military course at the Air Assault School. VandeVelde told Gonzales “you need to choose between military service and your career,” the lawsuit said.
Gonzales received orders on April 9, 2010, to report for active duty on Oct. 20, 2010.
On April 23, 2010, Derek Coppedge, VandeVelde’s supervisor at KDHE, provided a letter detailing concerns for the first time with Gonzales’ performance. During a public health conference in late April, VandeVelde was overheard telling Goss: “Well, I’ll just pull the grant” and “tell (Gonzales) the grant was pulled.”
Gonzales began a planned medical leave unrelated to her military service on April 29, 2010. Coppedge sent an email to VandeVelde on June 7, 2010, saying KDHE was relocating the grant to another county. The email didn’t mention alleged performance problems.
When Gonzales returned to work on June 13, Goss told her KDHE had removed the funding for her position and she would be out of a job. On June 15, Gonzales received a performance evaluation with ratings lower than previous reviews, based on feedback from KDHE, and Goss cut her salary by 3.55%. Gonzales was fired on June 30.
Gonzales was on active duty from Oct. 20, 2010, to Dec. 29, 2011. She sought help from the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve but was told the ESGR had a conflict of interest.
The lawsuit said Gonzales was made aware in 2018 that she could file a complaint with the Veterans’ Employment and Training Service. VETS investigated and advised KDHE in May 2019 that it was in violation of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act. Gonzales requested her case be forwarded to the U.S. Attorney General’s Office for further review.
The USERRA prohibits discrimination in employment against an individual on the basis of military service. The lawsuit claims KDHE violated the law by eliminating Gonzales’ position on the basis of her membership in the Army National Guard.
“VandeVelde’s statements about Gonzales’ military service and the timing of the elimination of Gonzales’ … position shortly after being notified of her deployment and before her deployment began demonstrate that Gonzales’ termination was not part of a performance action, but was a termination on the basis of Gonzales’ service,” the lawsuit said.
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