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In their corner: Attorneys help veterans resolve employment disputes

Sun., Dec. 8, 2013

Attorney Matt Crotty relaxes in his office in downtown Spokane. Crotty is one of a handful of lawyers nationwide representing service members under a federal law that prohibits employment discrimination based on military activities. (Colin Mulvany)
Attorney Matt Crotty relaxes in his office in downtown Spokane. Crotty is one of a handful of lawyers nationwide representing service members under a federal law that prohibits employment discrimination based on military activities. (Colin Mulvany)

Spokane attorney and National Guard reservist Matt Crotty never meant to mimic his father.

“Oh God, as a teenager he was the last thing I wanted to follow,” Crotty said, chuckling.

But follow the East Coast-educated veteran from the Bronx the younger Crotty did. Just as Robert Crotty tracked Viet Cong as an Army intelligence officer, Matt Crotty chased al-Qaida operatives in Yemen. Both married shortly after arriving back on U.S. soil. And both went to law school.

Since then the younger Crotty has charted his own course. And in a role reversal, a few years ago the younger Crotty brought his dad aboard a law firm that helps veterans with employment problems.

Matt Crotty drew from his experience both as a reservist and a small-business owner. About half of his client list is made up of so-called “weekend warriors” who say they’ve been denied or stripped of employment because of regular military training requirements.

As the nation turned to volunteers to fight conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere in the midst of an economic collapse, the number of reservists who’ve returned home to no job has skyrocketed in the past five years.

The two men – one a George Mason alumnus, the other a Gonzaga Bulldog – work together at Crotty & Son, headquartered in downtown Spokane.

“He’s a great resource to have,” Matt Crotty said. “I can call him up and ask him a bunch of stupid questions.”

Robert Crotty said his son, eligible for free tuition at Gonzaga, paid his own way instead after earning a military scholarship for attending basic training in high school.

“He’s quite a kid,” Robert Crotty said.

Being called into service, with the unintended interruptions in life that call can impose, is nothing new to Matt Crotty. He married just six days before being called to Yemen following the 9/11 attacks.

“I was doing one weekend a month, telling her nothing’s going to happen,” Crotty said.

He’d taken a similar tack when trying to persuade his mother to allow him to sign up with the Army the summer he turned 17, Robert Crotty said. The desire to serve survived a trip father and son took to see the Vietnam film “Platoon” that brought tears to Robert Crotty’s eyes. When the pair returned home, Robert Crotty said, his son was convinced it was a ruse to keep him from joining the military.

Now, the Lewis and Clark High School and Army Ranger School graduate is assisting a handful of reservists and National Guard members who say they were fired or denied employment because they serve.

He has a potent ally in the form of federal law.

‘Make the military stuff go away’

Shane Thorson spent nearly a year in Iraq unsure how he’d provide for his family when he returned home.

“Instead of coming back to a job, I came back to nothing,” Thorson said.

The Alabama native served in Baghdad before moving to Richland and taking a job with the Kennewick Police Department. A recruiter in the Tri-Cities area signed him up for the Oregon Army National Guard. Mortar fire in a subsequent deployment with the Oregon outfit left him injured and prompted months of rehabilitation that ended in a weekend job with the Klickitat County Sheriff’s Office.

Not wanting to quit the military but wary of the long hours needed to travel to training in Oregon with a wife and two daughters at home, Thorson put in a transfer to the Washington National Guard.

Thorson’s boss told him to end his ties with the military as a requirement to join the Sheriff’s Office. Strapped for cash and deputies, the county couldn’t afford going without the guardsman’s services if he was called up again.

“I was told, basically, to make the military stuff go away,” Thorson said. The newly hired deputy complied, sending his severance papers to the Oregon National Guard.

But, in a twist Matt Crotty said could only happen in the military, Thorson’s pending transfer to the active Washington National Guard remained in force. This was February 2008, just a few months before the 81st Combat Brigade of the Washington Guard was called into action.

Thorson said that when he got the letter informing him of his deployment, he told his employer before his wife.

“Two weeks later I was out of a job,” he said. “No discipline, no nothing.”

Thorson said he doesn’t blame the Sheriff’s Office for what it did. He was the weekend deputy, and they needed him on call. But the office fired him for insubordination, saying he did not return phone calls and disobeyed an order to leave the Guard. The finding made it hard to land a job when he returned, in addition to informing potential employers he might be called on again.

“It took me over four years,” said Thorson, who is now a patrol officer in Connell, Wash. “I applied a million places.”

While holding down a position at a warehouse that paid $12 an hour, Thorson contacted Crotty. Solutions at the state level proved unfruitful, with Thorson being denied unemployment benefits and the state Human Rights Commission refusing to take his case.

Then Crotty decided to go federal.

A new law for a new military

Retired Navy Capt. Sam Wright has spent the past 20 years fighting for the law he helped author.

“We didn’t write a whole new law,” Wright said of the work he and his partner, Susan Webman, presented to Congress in 1991. “We took an existing law and we updated the language, tried to make it understandable.”

The pair penned most of what is included in the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, known as USERRA among advocates in Wright’s Washington, D.C., stamping grounds. The law, signed by President Bill Clinton in 1994, updates a law dating to the 1940s that protects service members from being fired strictly because of military service. The new law also requires employers to honor raises and promotions the employee would have otherwise received if they had not volunteered.

Wright, who served as a judge advocate general attorney during his service, said he understands the burden employers face as a result of the law. But, he said, the promise of a job or promotion is small compared to the sacrifice reservist employees are willing to make.

“We should be honoring these people,” said Wright, who answers 800 phone calls and emails weekly from veterans with employment concerns. “It’s a very necessary and light burden compared to the burden these individuals are willing to take on.”

Wright tracks reservist and National Guard unemployment figures closely. According to congressional reports, the unemployment rate among veterans statewide remained higher than the national average in 2012, with more than 8 percent of all veterans in Washington claiming unemployment compared to the 7 percent national average. Among veterans of post-9/11 conflicts, the numbers are even bleaker – more than 12 percent of those veterans are jobless in Washington, compared to 1 in 10 nationwide.

The numbers have improved since the 2008 economic downturn, and evidence suggests young reservists and National Guard members from the most recent conflicts are employed at a higher rate than veterans not on the volunteer rolls. In addition, Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, a national organization that tracks USERRA claims, indicates a subtle 7 percent decline in annual claims after a peak in 2010. That year, more than 1,600 Guard members and reservists reached out to the organization claiming they’d been terminated because of military obligations.

The group handled 49 USERRA cases in Washington last year. Of those, 31 were resolved.

Wright said veterans who think they’ve been slighted have a lot of advantages under USERRA. But it still helps to have someone in their corner.

“You need an advocate,” Wright said.

‘It’s not rocket science’

In November 2011, Thorson and Crotty filed a federal lawsuit against Klickitat County citing a violation of federal law in the firing that occurred two years prior. It was a tactical move by Crotty, who knew the burden of proof would be lower under federal law than in the state proceedings to that point.

“All I had to prove was that his military service was a motivating factor (in the firing),” Crotty said.

Wright describes the USERRA defense in more metaphorical terms.

“It’s not rocket science,” the law’s architect said. “It’s like any civil lawsuit.”

The Sheriff’s Office continued to argue that the main reason for Thorson’s dismissal was insubordination. They also said he missed a disciplinary hearing in May 2008, just before his deployment. Thorson said the hearing was scheduled the same day he had medical appointments hundreds of miles away, obligations the Sheriff’s Office knew about.

The case was settled out of court, with the terms subject to a confidentiality agreement. Crotty said a deal was reached when an email submitted by the county insinuated that Thorson was fired in part because he failed to quit the National Guard promptly.

“It was quickly resolved after that,” Crotty said.

Thorson credits Crotty with helping not only in the lawsuit, but also in clearing his name. The charge of insubordination followed him wherever he went, keeping him from jobs in law enforcement and elsewhere. On top of the uncertainty about future deployments, the dispute kept him from gainful employment for almost four years. He was sworn in as a Connell police officer in May 2012.

The experience has also turned him off from future military service.

“I won’t go back and do anything in the military,” Thorson said. “The stress it causes on you and your family, it’s unbelievable.”

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