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The U.S. Department of Justice is suing the Kansas Department of Health and Environment in what federal attorneys are characterizing as an attempt to protect the job of an Army National Guard member who was deployed to active duty service.
The lawsuit from President Joe Biden's DOJ against Gov. Laura Kelly's KDHE stems from allegations that, under former Gov. Mark Parkinson, the state health department eliminated the job position of Staff Sgt. Stacy Gonzales, of Garden City.
Federal lawyers allege that the KDHE eliminated Gonzales's job in 2010 because of her military service. She had been employed as a KDHE disease intervention specialist in Finney County since 2001.
"This lawsuit reinforces the Justice Department’s strong commitment to protecting the rights of those who serve in our country’s armed forces," said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, of the DOJ's Civil Rights Division, in a news release. "We owe a solemn duty to members of the National Guard and Reserve to act when any employer seeks to deny them an opportunity to earn a living because they are called to duty."
The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 prohibits discrimination in employment against an individual on the basis of military service. That includes denial of retention in employment.
"Any attempt to deny someone employment based upon their dedicated military service to this country is wrong and a violation of that person’s civil rights," said Duston Slinkard, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Kansas, in a statement. "It is the responsibility of the Justice Department to take action to support our servicemembers and we take that responsibility very seriously."
The Employment Litigation Section of the DOJ's Civil Rights Division is handling the case.
"KDHE supports all Kansas National Guard employees and respects their service to Kansas and to our country," KDHE spokesperson Matt Lara said in an email. "We are surprised the Department of Justice took on this case. This individual was an employee of the Finney County Health Department, not KDHE, and didn't file their initial complaint until nearly a decade after the alleged incident. We can't comment further on a pending case."
A spokesperson for Attorney General Derek Schmidt didn't respond to a request for comment. Court records don't indicate whether the attorney general's office will be involved in defending the state.
Feds allege 'willful' violation of law
Court documents state that Gonzales performed active military service, including deployments to Iraq and Kuwait on top of periodic training, while employed by the state. Gonzales worked for the Finney County Health Department in a KDHE grant-funded position on sexually-transmitted disease intervention and prevention.
She returned from military duty in 2007 to an allegedly hostile workplace. The lawsuit cites as an example that her supervisor questioned "in a hostile tone" whether Gonzales's injuries sustained during deployment would affect her civilian job.
Gonzales informed her Finney County and KDHE superiors — including Ashley Goss, who is now the KDHE deputy secretary — on April 9, 2010, that she received orders to report to active duty in October.
That same month, KDHE administrators started detailing concerns with Gonzales's performance and indicated they would discontinue her contract if her performance did not improve. They notified FCHD that it had failed to meet program requirements — the only time that had happened during Gonzales's tenure.
"This letter was the first occasion KDHE had ever suggested that Gonzales' performance might warrant termination," federal attorneys allege.
While they aren't listed as defendants, the lawsuit names Goss, who was then the Finney County Health Department supervisor, KDHE STD section deputy director Jennifer VandeVelde, section director Derek Coppedge and director of disease control and prevention Brenda Walker.
The complaint alleges that VandeVelde told Gonzales earlier in 2010 that "you need to choose between military service and your career."
In June, the KDHE pulled the grant funding from Finney County and allocated the money to another county, cutting Gonzales's job.
Gonzales sought help from the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve after completing active duty service in December 2011, but was told the ESGR had a conflict of interest over her termination. It wasn't until November 2018, after being made aware of her rights, that she filed a complaint against KDHE with the U.S. Department of Labor's Veterans' Employment and Training Service.
The KDHE was informed in May 2019 that the VETS investigation concluded it had violated federal law.
"Gonzales' termination was not part of a performance action, but was a termination on the basis of Gonzales' service in the United States Army National Guard," attorneys allege.
The alleged violation "was willful" and the KDHE "showed reckless disregard." The lawsuit asks for payment of "substantial" lost wages and benefits, "in an amount to be proven at trial," plus damages and interest.
Jason Tidd is a statehouse reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Jason_Tidd.
This article originally appeared on Topeka Capital-Journal: DOJ sues Kansas after KDHE terminated Army National Guard member