UPDATE: Sheriff John Darr speaks out after gender discrimination verdict

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comSeptember 18, 2013 

In what one juror called a compromise verdict on Wednesday, a federal jury determined that Sheriff John Darr discriminated in his promotion practices, but did not award any money to two female lieutenants who were passed over for a 2010 promotion that went to a man.

The verdict came after more than 20 hours of deliberation. It left both sides claiming victory and Darr proclaiming he did not discriminate against Donna Tompkins and Joan Wynn.

After the verdict, Darr said he knows in his “heart” that gender has not been a factor in any decision he has made since he was elected sheriff in 2008.

"They way I look at, (the jury) said gender may have played a part in that,” Darr said after the verdict. “I know I am not that way. My friends know that I am not that way. My daughters know that I am not that way. The people who know me throughout this community and this department know that I am not that way."

The two women filed the lawsuit against Darr and the city of Columbus when Lt. Charles Shafer, a person they claimed was less qualified than they were, was promoted to captain.

In the case of both Wynn and Tompkins, the jury found that gender was a motivating factor in the promotion.

The jury had to answer two primary questions about each woman after three days of testimony that saw Darr, Tompkins, Wynn and Shafer and other key Sheriff’s Office employees testify.

First, the jury had to decide if Wynn and Tompkins were denied promotions. It said yes on both women.

Then the jury had to decide if each woman’s gender was a motivating factor in the personnel action. Again, the jury said yes to the question on each woman.

The jury then had the option of awarding back pay, compensatory damages for emotional distress and punitive damages against Darr.

They chose not to do so.

Juror speaks

Christina, a 45-year-old Harris County woman who did not want her last name published, served on the jury. She said the jury was deadlocked 9-3 in favor of discrimination against Darr and the city and she was in the majority. There were seven men and five women on the jury that deliberated over parts of four days. Neither side in the jury split was made up of one gender, Christina said.

"It was not easy,” Christina said. “It is hard when you go back and forth.”

She said the members of the panel “got along.”

In the end, the three holdouts agreed to say the sheriff discriminated, but the compromise was not to award financial damages, the juror said.

Any decision by the jury had to be unanimous.

Edward Buckley, an Atlanta attorney who represented Wynn and Tompkins said it was a win.

"We won on the finding of discrimination,” Buckley said afterward.

Columbus city attorney Clifton Fay said it was a win for the city and Darr.

"Zero damages was complete vindication of the sheriff’s and city’s position that no purposeful discrimination occurred,” Fay said.

Wynn and Tompkins will now seek promotions and compensation through U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land, Buckley said. The plaintiffs will also seek to recover legal fees from the defense, Buckley said. If damages had been awarded, the plaintiff lawyers would have been entitled to legal fees paid by the city and Darr.

Kirsten Stevenson, a Page Scrantom, Sprouse Tucker Ford attorney who represented the city and Darr, said the city and Darr would fight any such request of the court.

"They are entitled to file what they think is appropriate, and we will oppose those motions,” Stevenson said.

'They proved their case’

While Darr was claiming victory, Buckley and co-counsel Cheryl B. Legare were praising Wynn and Tompkins for filing the lawsuit and standing up against what they claim is an injustice in the 435-person department that is between 27 percent and 29 percent females, according to testimony.

"Those two women have more courage than I do,” Legare said.

Buckley said Wynn and Tompkins need to be proud of what they did.

"They can go back to work on Monday with their heads held high,” Buckley said. “They proved their case.”

Tompkins, a more than 20-year employee who offered emotional testimony during two days on the witness stand, said she and Wynn “did what we thought was right.”

"That was the point and we did this for ourselves and other women in the department -- people who don’t even know we did it for them,” Tompkins said.

Darr said he did not believe that the trial and testimony by people who work in the department about others who work in the department will have a lingering effect on the department.

"I don’t think this has been that difficult for the department,” he said. “I have taken the approach to run the most professional department I can. We are not going to be sidetracked by this.”

Stevenson, the lead counsel for the defense, stood up for the sheriff.

"I am lucky to represent Sheriff Darr and the city,” she said. “I think he’s a great sheriff and a great person.”

After more than three days and 20 hours of deliberation, Land was looking at the possibility of his first mistrial because of a hung jury. As the verdict came back, the judge was preparing to give the jury an “Allen charge.” The Allen charge -- also commonly called the “dynamite charge” -- is given by a judge to the jury in hopes of moving jurors in a minority off of entrenched positions.

The verdict came in just before noon after about three hours of deliberation on Wednesday.

The case that reached the jury was different from the original lawsuit that was filed in 2011.

Former Maj. Teri Ezell was a plaintiff in the original suit. She was the jail commander who was replaced by Darr when he took office in January 2009. Ezell and Tompkins, both of whom supported former Sheriff Ralph Johnson when he was defeated by Darr, claimed Darr violated their First Amendment rights of free speech by demoting them. Land threw that out before the trial.

Ezell still had a claim against Darr and the city that she was due compensatory time. Ezell dropped that claim on the eve of the trial and was not a party to the suit when it came to trial on Sept. 9.

Related stories:

Judge Land not calling it quits in federal gender discrimination suit; deliberations enter fourth day

Jury still out in gender discrimination case against Sheriff, city

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

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