Former Big Hill guard claims firing was age discrimination

David Yates Jun. 13, 2007, 7:00am

A technician works on one of the wells at the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

For 16 years Joe Melanson protected the nation's petroleum assets at the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in Beaumont, until he was fired for what he claims was age discrimination.

Refusing to retire quietly, Melanson has chosen to pursue legal action against his former employer Covenant Homeland Security Solutions. He filed his lawsuit against the company with the Jefferson County District Court on June 11.

Melanson questions the true motives of CHSS, and firmly believes the company is not attempting to train what it calls an "elite fighting force" but is in all actuality weeding out all senior officers in attempt to slash "payroll costs," the suit said.

"The sudden push to transform what has for years been an effective security force into an 'elite force' is more than silly – it represents a thinly veiled attempt to disparately impact older and more experienced SPR employees and replace them with younger, cheaper workers," the suit said.

With an authorized capacity of one billion barrels of oil, the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve is the largest stockpile of government-owned emergency crude oil in the world. Established in the aftermath of the 1973-74 oil embargo, the SPR provides the president with an outlet to supply oil should a disruption in commercial oil supplies threaten the economy, the suit said.

According to the suit, the SPR stores its oil underground in four massive, naturally occurring salt domes located in both Texas and Louisiana. "Plaintiff spent his years employed by defendant working as a K-9 officer protecting one of these salt domes and its attendant facility at the SPR site near Beaumont," the suit said.

The suit goes on to say that in 2005, CHSS took over security operations at SPR with the intentions of transforming security personnel "to what the defendant called 'an elite fighting force.'" The conversion "required more stringent" physical expectations and 50-year-old security officers were suddenly expected to perform as if they were 20 again.

"Plaintiff himself, and others his age, were subjected to these requirements with predictable results…they struggled to comply with the physical standards that their younger counterparts easily met," the suit said.

"These more stringent physical standards might make some amount of sense were there an actual threat of anything actually being stolen at the SPR, as in the case of a nuclear facility," the suit added. "However, all of the oil at the SPR is stored underground. It is protected by qualified snipers certified to kill at ranges of over 1,000 yards. In addition, every single security personnel at SPR are armed at all times."

Melanson claims that throughout his career at the SPR, he worked under a variety of different security companies, as the subcontracts for security at the SPR were replaced from time to time and the different companies came and went through competitive bidding processes.

"No matter the employer, plaintiff had a spotless employee file during his employment with all of these companies at the SPR," the suit said. "However, less than one year after defendant was awarded the subcontract for security at the SPR, plaintiff suddenly had two written warnings placed in his file."

A few days before Christmas (Dec. 21, 2006), Melanson was fired for misplacing a "harmless" training fuse, the suit said. "On Nov. 30, 2006, during an inventory of training devices used by K-9 handlers at Big Hill, it was discovered that a training device was missing."

"The training device at issue was a ten foot section of fuse," the suit said. "It is available for purchase at any hunting or outdoor supply store. Defendant incorrectly characterizes the fuse as an 'explosive device.' In truth, the fuse is completely harmless and has no independent explosive capability. It certainly presents no grave threat to national security if it is misplaced."

Melanson claims that CHSS did not provide any inventory training at SPR until Feb. 20, 2007.

"Indeed, the K-9 handlers in attendance at this February 2007 inventory training jokingly referred to it later as the 'Melanson training' because it was training that was brought about because of Melanson's termination, rather than Melanson's failure to abide by defendant's previously nonexistent policies and procedures," the suit said.

"In a world that is hopefully governed by reason and common sense, it cannot be the case that plaintiff, after some 16 years of working hard and well at his job at the SPR, suddenly turned into an employee worthy of termination in the span of less than four months," the suit added.

The suit contends that Melanson's premature termination is a violation of the Texas Labor Code. He is suing for loss of wages and benefits plus compensatory and actual damages.

Melanson is demanding a trial by jury, and his is represented by the attorney Lee Thweatt of the GoForth, Lewis and Sanford law firm.

Judge Donald Floyd, 172nd Judicial District, has been assigned to the case.

Case No. E179-467

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