Sheriff Darr back in court over gender discrimination verdict

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comNovember 17, 2013 

Two months after a jury rendered a verdict that left both sides in a gender discrimination case claiming victory, Muscogee County Sheriff John Darr and the two deputies who leveled the allegations will be back in federal court Monday.

In September, the jury ruled Darr discriminated against Lt. Joan Wynn and Lt. Donna Tompkins when they were bypassed for a 2010 promotion to captain that went to Charles Shafer, a person they claimed was a lesser qualified man. Though the jury sided with the plaintiffs, it awarded Wynn and Tompkins no back pay, no compensatory damages for emotional distress and no punitive damages.

Now, U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land is left to sort it out.

Since the verdict — which took the jury more than 20 hours of deliberation to reach — attorneys for Wynn and Tompkins have asked Land to promote the two women and order Darr and the city of Columbus to pay more than $270,000 in attorney fees.

Attorneys for Darr and the city of Columbus are fighting the requests, calling the verdict nothing more than a "moral victory at best" for the plaintiffs.

"This is a dogfight, and we are trying to put that matter to rest," City Attorney Clifton Fay said Friday.

According to court documents, Wynn and Tompkins are asking the judge to:

• Award them back pay of $23,000 to be split equally.

• Promote them to captain or have their lieutenant positions reclassified at the higher rank.

• If they are not immediately promoted, make them the only two candidates considered for the next two captain openings.

• If they are not immediately promoted, award each front pay from the date of the jury verdict in the amount that each would have been paid had she been promoted to captain on May 1, 2010, including all intervening raises.

• Revise the Sheriff's Office captain level promotional policies to require that interview panels are comprised of disinterested panelists from outside the department and the panels be diverse based on gender.

• Award $271,939.90 in attorney fees to Buckley & Klein LLP, an Atlanta firm that represented the women.

Attorneys for Wynn and Tompkins claim in a brief filed with the court that Land has the authority to award the back pay even though the jury did not.

"Inexplicably, the jury, despite the undisputed nature of the wage damages and in contradiction of well-settled legal authority requiring them to do so under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 … failed to award plaintiffs back pay," attorneys for Wynn and Tompkins contend. "However, this is a legal issue, not a factual issue, which can be rectified by the Court under its equitable powers or in the alternative through the grant of a new trial on back pay only."

The immediate promotion of Wynn and Tompkins is feasible, their attorneys argue.

"The evidence at trial established conclusively that Sheriff Darr has the authority to create new positions whenever he chooses, and has consistently done so when it benefits men," according to court records.

They point out that Maj. Mike Massey testified that he does not have a captain reporting to him in operations.

"Given that Sheriff Darr has created one major position and four lieutenant's positions since taking office, it is obviously not 'unworkable, unlawful, or unnecessary' for him to do so now to make plaintiffs whole," the attorneys argue.

Attorney Cheryl B. Legare declined to comment Friday saying, "We rest on what we filed and feel pretty strongly about what we filed."

The defense disputes that Wynn and Tompkins are prevailing parties.

"(The) plaintiffs have obtained a jury verdict finding that gender was a motivating factor in Sheriff Darr's decision not to promote them to Captain and that Plaintiffs should not be awarded damages to compensate for a net loss of wages and benefits to the date of the verdict nor should they be awarded damages to compensate for emotional pain and mental anguish nor should punitive damages be awarded against Sheriff Darr," the defense argued in court papers. "The jury's verdict does not materially alter the relationship between the parties and does not make Plaintiffs the prevailing parties."

If the plaintiffs are the prevailing parties, their attorneys are entitled to fees paid by the city. The lead lawyers for the plaintiffs were Legare and Edward D. Buckley. Buckley worked 130 hours on the case and billed at a rate of $450 per hour. Legare worked 425.3 houses and billed at a rate of $350.

Fay said this has been a costly trial for the city. Attorneys for Page, Scrantom, Sprouse, Tucker & Ford P.C. have billed the city about $225,000 for representation, Fay said. The bill for September for trial preparation and the trial was $134,604, Fay said.

Kirsten Stevenson, the lead attorney representing the city, referred all questions to Fay on Friday. Fay makes the argument the jury spoke when it did not return damages. The trial and deliberation lasted eight days.

"They just spent eight days on this matter," Fay said. "The issues have been thoroughly exhausted."

Ledger-Enquirer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service