Saturday, August 3, 2019

Winnebago County's former chief deputy coroner files discrimination complaint over job termination

Former Chief Deputy Coroner Chris Shea filed this complaint with the Department of Workforce Development.

By Miles Maguire

A former chief deputy coroner has filed a discrimination complaint against Winnebago County, alleging that his problems began with a rumor that he might challenge his boss at the ballot box.

After nearly 14 years working for Coroner Barry Busby without any “disciplinary action brought against me,” former Chief Deputy Chris Shea lost his job March 6. In a complaint filed with the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, Shea said problems began last August.

“I did notice a drastic change in Barry toward me in 2018 including verbal threats against me when he heard a rumor that I might oppose him in the election.”

Shea filed his complaint in mid-June, and the county was notified of the action in early July.

After the formal filing, “I can no longer comment on the matter,” said County Executive Mark Harris.

Shea said other factors in his loss of employment may have been that he had “a copy of a sexual harassment charge that was given to me by Barry’s secretary in the fall of 2018 and I was also aware of other unethical things that he was doing.”

Busby, who ran unopposed for coroner last year and was re-elected with the largest vote total of any candidate on the local ballot, has been urged to resign by a variety of local officials. They say he has been cheating local taxpayers by spending extensive periods of time out of state and delegating too much work to his staff.

The sexual harassment complaint that Shea referred to was that of Miranda Zuhlke, a licensed physician assistant who said she was subject to inappropriate behavior by Busby at a 2017 meeting of the Wisconsin Coroners and Medical Examiners Association. That group has conducted an ethics investigation into the incident but has not taken final action on the matter.

Busby has rejected the criticism of his job performance. He describes the ongoing operations of his office as "normal" and defends the dismissal of Shea, saying it was handled through the county’s Human Resources Department.

Human Resources Director Michael Collard did not respond to a request for comment, but the Oshkosh Northwestern reported that he has said Shea resigned after being demoted and relieved of his responsibilities.

“You can call it what you want, but the county is taking liberties calling it a resignation,” said Shea’s lawyer, Nate Cade.

Deputy coroners are paid on a per diem basis rather than with a regular salary. Thus even if they technically retain their jobs, they would be left with no income if their responsibilities are taken away, a situation known as “constructive dismissal.”

Collard “is going to eat his words,” Cade predicted.

Cade, who heads Cade Law Group in Milwaukee, explained that he is pursuing two parallel courses of action. In the first he has given the county a “notice of injury” on behalf of Shea, which is the first step towards a possible civil lawsuit.

The second is the discrimination complaint, which was filed jointly with the state and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

In his filing Shea said the basis for his firing was that he “opposed discrimination in the workplace.”

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