Fired Chapel Hill workers want jobs back; court hearing in September

tgrubb@newsobserver.comApril 23, 2014 

Clyde Clarke, one of two fired Chapel Hill sanitation workers, speaks during the annual MLK rally in 2011 at Peace and Justice Plaza in downtown Chapel Hill. Kerry Bigelow (in hat) stands behind him.

MARK SCHULTZ — mschultz@newsobserver.com

— Two fired sanitation workers still want to work for Chapel Hill but are prepared to take their lawsuit against the town to a jury this fall, they said.

The case is set for a Sept. 22 hearing in Orange County Superior Court in Hillsborough.

Clyde Clark and Kerry Bigelow were fired in 2010 because of residents’ complaints, job performance issues and insubordination, Chapel Hill officials said. They sued the town and Town Manager Roger Stancil, claiming the decision violated their constitutional right to free speech and involved racial discrimination.

The men also sued for wrongful discharge, because they claim they were fired for participating in a labor union and filing complaints with the union about job safety concerns and town hiring practices.

They want their jobs back, their work records corrected and to earn the retirement pay, salaries and benefits they would have received since October 2010, attorney Al McSurely said in an April 4 letter to the town’s attorneys.

The men also are seeking unspecified damages for their pain and suffering and their legal costs, McSurely said.

“The town fought so hard to try to smear these guys’ reputations. It’s just been inhumane,” he said.

Town attorney Dan Hartzog Jr. said the town could ask the judge to rule on the facts of the case in September. The town did not ask McSurely for a settlement offer, he said.

Hartzog declined to comment on the specifics of the ongoing lawsuit.

Superior Court Judge R. Allen Baddour Jr. dismissed the lawsuit’s claims in May 2012, and the men appealed to the N.C. Court of Appeals. A three-judge appeals panel said last year the case should get a full hearing.

The N.C. Supreme Court sided with the appeals court in August.

Clark and Bigelow said it’s more about the principle than the money. They pursued the lawsuit in large part to create a more fair working environment in the town of Chapel Hill, Bigelow said.

“It’s going to have an impact on people we’ll probably never see and we’ll never know,” he said. “It’s not just for us, but for all workers.”

Bigelow worked for about a year as a long-haul, tractor-trailer driver. It was nonstop, and he didn’t see his young family for weeks at a time, he said. He no longer has that job.

Clark hasn’t found another job and doesn’t have a high school diploma or GED, he said. He has relied on friends, family and local groups, such as the IFC Food Pantry and St. Thomas More Catholic Church, he said.

“It was the end of the road for me. That was the best job I ever had,” he said.

Grubb: 919-932-8746

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