The U.S. Justice Department has filed a lawsuit accusing an Austin technology nonprofit of violating the employment rights of an Army reservist under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, or USERRA.
According to the complaint, Lt. Col. Charles O’Donnell’s military service was a motivating factor in his 2016 firing from Wi-Fi Alliance.
O’Donnell lost his position as a program manager less than a month after he returned from serving with West Point Admissions at the United States Military Academy, according to the lawsuit filed jointly by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. attorney’s office for the Western District of Texas.
“The men and women of our armed services expect and are entitled to the peace of mind of knowing that their civilian employment will not be jeopardized because they serve our country,” Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore of the Civil Rights Division said in a statement.
Wi-Fi Alliance issued a statement Friday saying military service did not contribute to O’Donnell’s dismissal: “Wi-Fi Alliance respects and honors all of our veterans and reservists. We are proud of the important roles veterans hold within Wi-Fi Alliance, including our President and CEO, our Vice President of Marketing and others. Any decision to eliminate positions within a company our size is incredibly difficult, and we count a number of long-time colleagues and friends among those who ultimately lost their jobs as part of a necessary reduction in force in 2016. Status as a veteran and reservist or the taking of military leave were not factors in reduction decisions. While we cannot comment on the details of pending litigation, Wi-Fi Alliance will defend the lawsuit very vigorously.”
The lawsuit says the company struggled financially in 2015 and projected a $1.3 million decline in revenue for the upcoming year. It was determined that six employees would be let go, including one from the program management division where O’Donnell worked. He was terminated on July 1, 2016, after more than three years despite positive performance reviews and unique job responsibilities compared with employees who were not dismissed, the lawsuit says.
O’Donnell’s yearly military duty schedule meant he was away from the office for four weeks out of the year.
The lawsuit seeks damages equal to the amount of O’Donnell’s lost wages and benefits.
Congress in 1994 enacted USERRA to prohibit discrimination against service members who leave their civilian jobs temporarily to perform military service. It ensures their jobs will be waiting for them when they return.
O’Donnell initially filed a complaint with the Labor Department’s Veterans’ Employment and Training Service, which failed to reach a resolution between the parties.