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Former Weare assistant: Chief fired me for my disability and hired a woman he had an affair with

Last modified: 8/30/2015 10:35:06 PM
In the course of one month in the spring of 2014, a six-year employee of the Weare Police Department and former assistant to then-Chief John Velleca accidentally called the chief by his first name, was interrogated about a heart attack she suffered years earlier, was commanded to resign, and was ultimately fired because of her disability, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court Wednesday.

Dawn Wheeler, who was hired in February 2008 and received exemplary remarks in her 2013 performance review by the prior chief, alleges the town violated the Americans With Disabilities Amendments Act and a state law prohibiting disability discrimination, resulting in “lost wages, lost earning capacity, lost employment benefits, emotional distress, humiliation, inconvenience and loss of enjoyment of life,” the suit states. It further notes that she was replaced “with another employee, Jennifer Posteraro, with whom the chief (Velleca) would have a sexual affair.”

Velleca, who came on as chief five months before the alleged string of incidents with Wheeler, resigned in October. Posteraro also sued the department last month, becoming the fourth former employee to do so since 2010. Weare Town Administrator Naomi Bolton was unavailable for comment Friday and Keith Lacasse, the chairman of the board of selectmen, didn’t return an email.

In her suit, Wheeler portrays a stark contrast between the department that hired her and the one that fired her. After coming on as a records clerk, she assumed the duties of the administrative assistant to the chief a few months later and was officially named to that position by January 2009. Her 2013 performance review called her a “model employee,” according to the suit, and former Chief Gregory Begin wrote that her “daily work ethic, attitude and extra effort is exemplary and is to be commended.”

Velleca came on in November 2013, and Wheeler’s trouble with him began the following April, after she returned home from a vacation to find an “urgent plumbing problem” would necessitate her to be absent an additional day on April 21, 2014. She called Velleca to tell him that, and, “In this conversation, I inadvertently started to call the chief by his first name, ‘John.’ I did not even speak the full word, ‘John,’ before I corrected myself and called him ‘Chief,’ ” she wrote in the suit.

The next day, she was summoned to a meeting with Velleca and a sergeant, where Velecca “began the meeting by reprimanding me for calling him by his first name,” stating, “I have earned the title of chief of police. Who do you think you are to call me by my first name?” she wrote.

Velleca allegedly went on to state that he’d reviewed her medical file and asked about a heart attack she had more than two years before being hired that required her to have a stent placed. Wheeler wrote that she was “dumbfounded” that Velleca was discussing her medical history in the presence of the sergeant and that he eventually “stated his view that the workplace would be too stressful for me,” she wrote in the suit. He additionally suggested that she go on medical leave and “volunteered during his interrogation about my medical conditions that he does not always get along with unsworn members of police departments,” she wrote.

Wheeler said she was called in for another meeting less than a week later, when Velleca asked her, “What do you do all day?”

“Chief Velleca’s tone made clear that he intended to get rid of me. I told him that I did not want to get fired. He told me that I had until the end of the day to resign. I thought about it and decided that I did not want to throw away a six-year career and surrender (to) a bullying chief who harbored discriminatory animus against me because I have disabling impairments,” she wrote.

Wheeler said she told Velleca she wouldn’t resign, and he told her he was placing her immediately on administrative leave. The following week, about May 5, the board of selectmen voted to terminate her employment on Velleca’s recommendation, the suit states.

In June 2014, Wheeler filed a charge of discrimination alleging disability discrimination with the New Hampshire Commission for Human Rights and the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the suit states.

On June 1, 2015, she received a “notice of right to sue” from the EEOC and filed her suit in federal court within 90 days, in accordance with the notice.

The suit alleges that the town fired Wheeler “with willful or reckless disregard of her rights” and that it was “because she had a record of a physical impairment substantially limiting several major life activities and because the defendant regarded Ms. Wheeler as suffering from such impairments,” all in violation of the ADAAA and state disability discrimination law.

Wheeler is requesting a jury trial and claims financial damages and emotional distress because of her firing.

Minutes from the Weare selectmen’s May 5, 2014, meeting, when Wheeler alleges she was fired, include Velleca as a guest and a 1½ hour nonpublic session. The board votes unanimously to seal the minutes; however, no public reflection is made about any decisions the board arrived at behind closed doors. The minutes of the board’s next meeting, a week later, state that Velleca “came before the board last Monday night to make Jennifer Posteraro full time.” The selectmen voted unanimously to hire Posteraro as Velleca’s assistant at a pay rate of $18.25 an hour.

Wheeler’s attorney, Benjamin King of Douglas, Leonard & Garvey, said the town has 60 days from the time when its attorney is served to respond to the allegation. If the case were to go to trial, King said he expects that would occur in late 2016.

Wheeler’s case marks the latest lawsuit against the town. Posteraro, who claims she was assaulted by Velleca during an affair in the fall of 2014, is also suing the town. At least two former employees of the Weare Police Department have recently settled lawsuits with the town resulting in payouts of more than $250,000.

(Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325 or nreid@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @NickBReid.)


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