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Twin Falls sheriff’s office loses employment discrimination case

Twin Falls County Courthouse
J. Stephen Conn
/
Flickr Creative Commons
Twin Falls County Courthouse

A former captain of the Twin Falls County Sheriff’s office won his civil case alleging employment discrimination and wrongful termination against the county and sheriff’s office, and was awarded more than $600,000.

“It was the honor of my lifetime to serve our community as a member of law enforcement,” said former Twin Falls County Sheriff Captain Brent E. Hilliard, after a judge and jury affirmed his claims this fall. “However, the circumstances of the discrimination I experienced at the Twin Falls County Sheriff’s Office in 2017 resulted in the most difficult months of my life, and the ultimate loss of a career that I loved.”

Hilliard was hired by the Twin Falls County Sheriff’s Office in 1996, and advanced from corporal to captain. In 2017, he told his supervisor, Chief Deputy Don Newman, that he had been battling depression related to events he witnessed on the job. His depression was also worsened by a back injury he suffered that spring, which required surgery.

The month after Hilliard returned to work, Newman learned he was taking pain medication, and in a meeting with Twin Falls County Sheriff Tom Carter, they expressed concerns about Hilliard being under the influence while on duty, citing reports from colleagues.

Carter told Hilliard to go home and remain off duty until he was off all pain medication, contradicting advice from Hilliard’s doctors. Soon after, Hilliard was placed on “unofficial administrative leave” and was required to go to a doctor for a “fitness for duty” evaluation.

Hilliard claimed that the doctor told him he was fit for duty, but that Newman called the doctor afterwards, and incorrectly accused Hilliard of having a history of substance abuse. The written doctor’s report sent to the county after said the captain was unfit for duty.

Soon after, the Twin Falls County Sheriff’s Office began taking “adverse employment action” against Hilliard. He was told a second “fitness for duty” test would determine his future employment. When he learned the same doctor had made no recommendation regarding his fitness, he assumed he’d be fired.

A couple days later, in early September 2017, Hilliard drank alcohol, drove to a remote location and contemplated taking his own life. He then reconsidered and headed home, but on the way was stopped and arrested for driving under the influence. He was officially terminated Sept. 28, 2017.

He filed a tort claim in October, alleging that the Twin Falls County Sheriff’s Office and the county violated the Equal Opportunity for Individuals with Disabilities Act and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Idaho Human Rights Act.

In response, the Twin Falls County Sheriff’s Office and the county said Hilliard was fired simply because of the DUI. They also contended that over the summer, Hilliard appeared to be impaired at work, and that they were justified in asking Hilliard to submit to a fitness for work exam.

A federal jury trial was held in Boise this fall. The jury agreed that the county and the sheriff’s office violated the ADA and the Idaho Human Rights Act. It also determined Hilliard was entitled $664,275 in damages, lost earnings and backpay. Judge Candy Dale affirmed the verdict on Nov. 23.

“I wish that I had received the support that the law requires when I needed it most, but I hope that my case will ensure that future officers who may be struggling physically, mentally, or emotionally are received with love and support from county leadership,” Hilliard wrote this week in a statement sent through his lawyers at Hepworth Law Offices.

Twin Falls County Commissioners said Thursday the county will appeal the jury's decision.

"We take public safety and officer safety extremely seriously. Twin Falls County's policies are designed to address situations like this one. We also have policies and practices that comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. We think the ADA was applied improperly against the county in this case. We will appeal the jury's award," a press release stated.

The Twin Falls County Sheriff’s Office would not comment on the case.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include a statement from the Twin Falls County Commissioners.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

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As the south-central Idaho reporter, I cover the Magic and Wood River valleys. I also enjoy writing about issues related to health and the environment.

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