Brent Hilliard

Twin Falls County Sheriff’s then Lt. Brent Hilliard stands in new office space for the county’s criminal investigation division in 2009. Content Exchange

TWIN FALLS — A former captain in the county sheriff’s office last month was awarded more than a half-million dollars in a civil judgment against the county and the sheriff’s office.

A jury sided with former Twin Falls Sheriff’s Capt. Brent Hilliard on Nov. 18 in a wrongful termination lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court three years ago against Twin Falls County and the sheriff’s office.

Chief Magistrate Judge Candy Dale awarded Hilliard $664,275.40 on Nov. 23. The amount does not include lawyer’s fees, Hilliard’s attorney Grady Hepworth told the Times-News.

Hilliard said in a statement issued through his attorney’s office that it was the honor of his lifetime to serve the community as a member of law enforcement.

“However, the circumstances of the discrimination I experienced at the Twin Falls County Sheriff’s Office in 2017 resulted in the most difficult months of my life, and the ultimate loss of a career that I loved,” he wrote.

Hilliard claimed the defendants discriminated against him by wrongfully refusing to allow him to return to work as a Twin Falls County Sheriff’s captain following back surgery, court records say.

He sued on the grounds that the sheriff’s office violated the Equal Opportunity for Individuals with Disabilities Act and Americans with Disabilities Act, violated the Idaho Human Rights Act, and negligently inflicted emotional distress.

Sheriff Tom Carter and County Commission Chair Jack Johnson declined when the Times-News asked for a comment.

Hilliard had been with the sheriff’s office since 1996. Carter promoted him to captain on Jan. 1, 2011.

In mid-April 2017, Hilliard told his supervisor, Chief Deputy Don Newman, that he “had been battling depression related to disturbing events he witnessed over the course of his career” and that he needed to seek medical help, court records say. Hilliard then received medical attention from a licensed therapist.

Hilliard’s depression was also aggravated by a back injury he had suffered earlier that year, records say. He underwent surgery in May 2017 and was unable to work for one month afterward.

He was released by his doctors the following month and placed on light administrative duty while he continued to recover.

Meanwhile, Hilliard took pain medications prescribed by his doctor, court records say.

On July 10, 2017, the suit says, Newman and Carter met with Hilliard to discuss his use of the pain medications. Newman said he had received numerous reports that Hilliard appeared to be under the influence on the job; Hilliard told them he took oxycodone while off work and tramadol before going to work in the morning.

Carter then told Hilliard to “go home and remain off duty until he was off of all pain medication,” court records say.

A week later, Hilliard told Newman he was “off all pain medication and ready to return to work,” but Hilliard was called into another meeting with Carter, Newman and legal counsel from the Twin Falls County attorney’s office. In the meeting, Hilliard was informed that he was being placed on “unofficial administrative leave” and that he was required to submit to a “Fitness for Duty” evaluation, records say.

After the July 27, 2017, evaluation, Dr. Ronald B. Tye indicated verbally that his initial impression was that Hilliard could return to work.

But before Tye issued his final report, Newman communicated privately with Tye, the suit says.

“Hilliard alleges Newman’s statements to Dr. Tye ‘falsely accused’ Hilliard of having a history of substance abuse and improperly interfered with Dr. Tye’s evaluation,” records say.

Tye issued his report on Aug. 3, 2017, finding Hilliard “unfit for duty” and recommended treatment — which Hilliard followed — that would allow him to return to work.

Hilliard told the court that Carter called him the day before his second evaluation was scheduled. Carter told Hilliard he would not have a job at the sheriff’s office if he didn’t pass the evaluation, he said.

A second evaluation was completed Aug. 28, 2017. According to Hilliard, Tye again indicated he was leaning toward finding Hilliard fit for duty. But Tye’s final report, dated Sept. 7, 2017, made no determination of Hilliard’s fitness for duty.

Newman sent Hilliard a text that said Tye’s report had been received and was being sent to the county legal department. Hilliard interpreted the text to mean his employment would be terminated.

Later that day, “Hilliard consumed alcohol, drove to a remote location, and contemplated suicide,” court records say. But he reconsidered and was driving home when he was arrested for driving under the influence.

He was suspended from his position at the sheriff’s office shortly after his arrest and his employment was terminated Sept. 28, 2017.

Hilliard suffered damages including “lost salary and wages, loss of employment benefits and retirement benefits, attorney’s fees, expert fees, court costs, and severe emotional distress and other non-economic damages,” his original complaint says.

“Most of all, I hope my story will serve as a reminder to the mental health challenges that members of law enforcement are silently battling every day,” Hilliard said in a statement to the Times-News by Hepworth Law Offices in Boise. “It is extremely important that as a community, we provide better services and support to our military veterans and members of local law enforcement.”

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