A federal wrongful termination lawsuit filed against Weld County by a former coroner’s office investigator is slated for trial this month in Denver.
A current employee of the coroner’s office also has filed a similar suit, which has not yet been set for trial.
Former coroner’s office investigator Corinna Pina-Belmarez and medical investigator Christopher Robillard both filed complaints in U.S. District Court in December 2011, stating that they’ve received negative performance reviews and were given undesirable hours after they asked to be paid for time spent on-call. The lawsuits name the Weld County Board of Commissioners, the coroner’s office and Coroner Mark Ward. Pina-Belmarez, who was fired after 16 years at the office, also names former coroners Patrick C. Allen and James A. Wilkerson.
Pina-Belmarez’s case is scheduled to go before a federal jury in Denver on Jan. 28. Robillard’s case has yet to be set for trial, and the defendants have filed a motion to dismiss. The next date for that case is Feb. 5.
Both complaints state that medical investigators are required to spend some hours as on-call investigators, either primary or backup. Investigators have to be prepared to respond to dispatchers within five minutes and be en route to a death within 30 minutes. The lawsuits specify that they are compensated for any time spent investigating deaths while on call, but they are not paid for the time they spend waiting while on call.
Pina-Belmarez and Robillard stated in their complaints that those requirements prevented them from enjoying leisure time and from spending time with family and friends while on call. The complaints state that those on-call hours often contributed to them being awake for up to 30 hours at a time.
Robert J. Herrera, an attorney at Black Suit Law in Windsor who is representing both, said the investigators are required to sit by their pagers or cellphones without being able to use their time for any personal enjoyment. That, he said, is the basis of their complaints.
“It really goes to how much the employee is able to utilize the on-call time for their personal use, and how much on-call time impedes the enjoyment of that time,” Herrera said.
The the board of commissioners and the coroner’s office have denied requests for payment during on-call duties, according to the documents.
Both lawsuits also allege that the employees were promised compensation time for overtime, but they were blocked from accumulating overtime, often sent home suddenly without being allowed to finish their work.
Pina-Belmarez’s complaint also alleges she was scrutinized more harshly than her male counterparts. Herrera said she was treated differently when she was injured on the job. She was required to take tests to return to work when her male counterparts were not.
Pina-Belmarez was terminated after she had taken time off because she injured her back and ankle on the job, according to the complaint. The county stated that she had used all of the time off she was entitled to use for medical and family reasons, and she was unable to perform duties required for the position.
The lawsuit states that as a requirement for her to go back to work, Pina-Belmarez was required to be able to lift, push or pull a 150-200 pound body by herself, although she had never been required to do that before. Herrera said he believes that was added as a new requirement while she was on leave, and it was just an excuse fabricated to fire Pina-Belmarez.
“We feel that they no longer wanted her to be there and found a reason for her not to be,” Herrera said.
Robillard’s complaint states that after he requested to be compensated, the office refused to compensate him for some training hours and equipment, according to the document.
Both complaints seek unspecified reimbursement and punitive damages. The board of commissioners and the coroner’s office declined to comment. Robillard and Pina-Belmarez also declined to comment.
Herrera said Pina-Belmarez and Robillard hope their cases will prevent other employees from being treated unfairly.
“We’re hoping to right some wrongs that have been perpetrated, we feel, by the board of commissioners, the coroner’s office and the individuals named,” Herrera said.
We feel that they no longer wanted her to be there and found a reason for her not to be.
— Robert J. Herrera, an attorney at Black Suit Law in Windsor