Weare gives $145,000 to former police secretary to settle wrongful termination suit

  • Weare police chief John Velleca chats with residents following his swearing in ceremony at Weare Middle School on Saturday, October 26, 2013. John Tully

  • —GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor Staff

Monitor staff
Published: 7/8/2016 1:38:56 AM

The town of Weare agreed to pay Dawn Wheeler $145,000 to settle a lawsuit claiming she was wrongfully terminated from her position as an administrative assistant with the police department.

The settlement is the latest in a string of lawsuits that has cost the town hundreds of thousands of dollars in payouts and legal fees over the last few years.

The complaints stemmed from her employment under the direction of former police chief John Velleca, who resigned in October 2014.

In the lawsuit, Wheeler claimed she was interrogated by Velleca about a heart attack she suffered in 2005. Velleca demanded that she resign, and he recommended that she be fired after she had accidentally called the chief by his first name in a phone conversation, the suit said.

On the recommendation of Velleca, Weare’s select board voted to terminate her employment in May 2014. She was replaced by another employee, Jennifer Posteraro, with whom Velleca had an affair.

Wheeler claimed the town acted in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and a state law prohibiting disability discrimination.

Weare officials did not return calls for comment Thursday, and Wheeler’s attorney, Benjamin King, did not comment beyond confirming the suit had been resolved.

Wheeler had requested a jury trial when she initially filed the complaints in August, claiming financial damages and emotional stress as a result of her termination. The suit was filed in U.S. District Court, with the backing of the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The $145,000 covers lost pay, damages and attorney fees.

Wheeler had been employed with the department for six years and received commendation from the previous chief, Gregory Begin.

“Your daily work ethic, attitude and extra effort is exemplary and is to be commended,” Begin wrote in an undated letter of appreciation to Wheeler. “Your professionalism is a great asset to me and our department.”

Troubles between Wheeler and Velleca first began in April 2014, five months after the chief was brought onto the department. That month, Wheeler spent two days in North Carolina on a vacation that was approved by the chief. Upon her return, the suit said, Wheeler discovered an “urgent plumbing problem” in her home and called Velleca the next morning to ask for an additional day off to handle the issue. Velleca approved that request, according to the suit.

When she returned to work a day later, she was summoned to a meeting with Velleca where she claims to have been scolded for calling the chief by his first name during their phone conversation the day before. In the suit, Wheeler admits she called the chief by his first name but “immediately corrected herself to address him as ‘Chief.’ ”

In the suit, Wheeler wrote that Velleca told her, “I have earned the title of Chief of Police. Who do you think you are to call me by my first name?”

From there, Wheeler claims Velleca interrogated her about her heart condition and whether she had a stent in place from a 2005 heart attack. Wheeler said she did have the stent placed, and Velleca concluded that in his opinion the “department workplace would be too stressful for Ms. Wheeler, given her heart condition,” she wrote.

This conversation allegedly took place after then-Sgt. Ken Cox was called into the room, a move that left Wheeler “flabbergasted” as the chief openly discussed her medical history with another member of the department present.

Six days later, Wheeler was summoned to meet with Velleca again, where Wheeler claims he asked her, “What do you do all day?”

“Chief Velleca’s tone made clear that he intended to get rid of me,” Wheeler wrote. “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.”

On April 29, 2014, Wheeler told Velleca she did not intend to resign. As a result, Wheeler was placed on administrative leave and was told Velleca would recommend the town terminate her employment.

One week later, Wheeler said the select board approved her termination. Minutes from the May 5, 2014, select board meeting show Velleca was present, but the entire meeting was conducted in a nonpublic session and its minutes were sealed.

The town’s settlements are paid through its insurer, Primex, a public risk management exchange with offices in Concord. Through Primex, Weare participates in a risk pool consisting of about 250 towns and school districts.

As the town continues to weather its legal battles, the premium paid to Primex has continued to climb. For instance, the amount paid to Primex went from $117,000 in 2013 to $193,000 in 2014, and $386,000 in 2015. The premiums paid to Primex for 2016 weren’t available Thursday.

The town’s legal expenses have also been mounting, as documented in recent town reports. For 2015 and 2016, the town earmarked $61,900 for legal expenses each year. In 2015, the town spent $176,000 in legal fees. In 2014, the town went over budget by $57,000 in legal expenses.

The town has since turned a corner with its police department and has been on the upswing despite lingering lawsuits. The department received national accreditation about this time last year under the authority of current police Chief Sean Kelly.

(Nick Stoico can be reached at 369-3309, nstoico@cmonitor.com and on Twitter @NickStoico.)

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