Jury still out in gender discrimination case against Sheriff, city

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comSeptember 13, 2013 

Jurors in a federal gender discrimination case against Muscogee County Sheriff John Darr and the city of Columbus failed to reach a verdict after four hours of deliberation Friday afternoon.

U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land gave the seven-man, five-woman jury the weekend off and ordered them back to the Columbus federal courthouse at 9 a.m. Monday.

The lawsuit was brought by two current Muscogee County Sheriff’s Office employees who were not promoted to captain in 2010. Donna Tompkins and Joan Wynn -- both lieutenants in the department -- filed suit claiming Darr and the city violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act when Charles Shafer, a man they claim is lesser qualified, was promoted to captain.

Jury deliberation was preceded by passionate closing arguments on both sides.

Edward Buckley, the Atlanta attorney representing Tompkins and Wynn, told the jury that discrimination was “a subtle thing.”

"The sheriff just prefers to work with men,” Buckley said.

He then laid out how Darr, who was elected in November 2008, promoted men in 21 of his first 22 promotions. That included a four-person, all-male command staff.

Darr brought his command staff -- Chief Deputy John Fitzpatrick, Maj. Mike Massey, Maj. Randy Robertson and jail Commander Dane Collins -- into the interviewing process for the captain’s hiring and asked them for recommendations. Massey, Robertson and Collins testified they recommended Shafer. Fitzpatrick said he told the sheriff the hire should be a female, but did not specify Tompkins or Wynn.

During the five-day trial, Darr and his command staff said the primary reason they recommended Shafer was because he had more experienced. Shafer had more than 30 years of experience in the jail and had been in supervisory positions since 1984. "Sheriff Darr promised change when he took over,” Buckley said. “And what does he do? He promotes the man who has been in the jail the longest.”

Stevenson said Darr did not discriminate against Tompkins or Wynn.

"Just because you don’t get the job, does not make it discrimination,” she told the jury. “These jobs are few and far between.”

Stevenson also brought up Fitzpatrick in her closing. Fitzpatrick, who testified that God instructed him to hire a female for the position, said he wears a clown suit in the office when he sees an injustice or something that is wrong. He has not worn the suit in public since his promotion in 2009, but he testified he has worn parts of it in Darr’s office. The chief deputy testified he did not put the clown suit on after Shafer’s hiring.

"If you are going to discriminate, are you going to invite a man into the interview who puts on a clown suit and screams on the highest mountain when he sees injustice?” Stevenson asked.

That was a theme of Stevenson’s closing. She argued Darr was under no obligation to hold interviews for the position.

"If you are going to discriminate, go pick the man,” Stevenson said. “Sheriff Darr did not do that.”

Buckley hammered Darr on what the attorney called a Freudian slip, when Darr used the word “he” twice while answering questions about the vacant captain’s slot and discussing who would fill it.

Kirsten Stevenson, representing Darr and the city, said the sheriff simply misspoke.

"They want you to hang you up on this on a Freudian slip,” Stevenson told the jury.

She then pointed out mistakes Buckley had made when using witnesses’ names during the trial.

Buckley had a chance to respond to that, and he did.

"Nothing Mrs. Stevenson said about me personally offends me,” Buckley said. “What offends me is discrimination. … And that Freudian slip must be important. I mentioned it four times. Mrs. Stevenson mentioned it nine times.”

One of the primary issues in the case was education -- the lack of it by Shafer and the graduate degrees by Wynn and Tompkins. Both sides addressed it in closing arguments.

"Education is wonderful, but it is certainly not the only way a person can be qualified for a position,” Stevenson said. “The gentleman with the Baker High diploma and 35 years in the jail was more qualified for this job.”

Buckley took exception.

"Shafer did not have the educational requirements for the job,” Buckley said. “He did not meet the baseline requirement.”

Buckley said his clients were not “educational snobs.”

"They were encouraged to do it so that they could get ahead,” Buckley said.

Buckley asked the jury for between $21,000 and $23,000 each in lost wages, $300,000 for emotional compensatory damages and punitive damages.

Stevenson said that if the jury awarded even $1 in damages, it would send the wrong message. Buckley countered that.

"Punitive damages of $1 is a sad joke,” Buckley said. “You have to make it a substantial sum. If you don’t speak out today, it may be another 30 years before someone speaks out.”

Land made it clear in his charge to the jury that Darr as the ultimate hiring authority in the department would be personally responsible for any punitive damages.

The jury must decide individually on Wynn and Tompkins. Any decision must be unanimous.

Related stories:

Promoted captain, at center of Sheriff Darr discrimination suit, testifies

Federal discrimination lawsuit: Sheriff Darr, his chief deputy give conflicting testimony

Roundup: The Darr discrimination suit so far

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