Chuck Williams: No winners in sheriff's discrimination case

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comNovember 25, 2013 

Mike Haskey mhaskey@leder-enquirer.com Sheriff John Darr of the Muscogee County Sheriff's Office listens to a question from the media after reading his statement Tuesday afternoon. 11/12/13

MIKE HASKEY — mhaskey@ledger-enquirer.com Buy Photo

U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land is expected to rule this week in a gender discrimination case against Muscogee County Sheriff John Darr.

In September, a jury deliberated for more than 20 hours before returning a verdict that Darr violated federal law in the promotion process. Lt. Donna Tompkins and Lt. Joan Wynn were discriminated against by Darr when they were bypassed for a 2010 promotion to captain, the jury found.

But in what one juror called a "compromise verdict," Wynn and Tompkins were awarded no compensatory damages for emotional distress and no punitive damages.

Their attorneys have gone back to Land and asked the judge to rectify that. They are asking for promotions as well as the payment they would have received if they had been promoted and more than $270,000 in attorneys fees.

Darr's attorneys and the city are fiercely fighting it, claiming in court filings that the win was a "moral victory at best."

Unless there is a settlement, Land's ruling should come down mid-morning Wednesday. There is not much to be thankful for in this mess, but one thing has become abundantly clear in this three-and-a-half-year saga — there are no winners.

Darr certainly hasn't won. His attorneys admitted in a hearing last week he has to deal with the stigma of the verdict and the surrounding publicity.

Wynn and Tompkins haven't won. Sure, the jury sided with them, but then it side-stepped the rest of the question.

The city has not won. Darr is a constitutional officer elected countywide, but the folks who work for him are city employees, thus falling under the city's merit system. The city has little to no control over what Darr does with his personnel. But the city has been put in the position of defending the action and paying for it.

The taxpayers have been losers. The Columbus law firm of Page, Scrantom, Sprouse, Tucker & Ford P.C. has billed the city about $225,000 for legal fees defending Darr and the city. And the meter will continue to run if this goes up on appeal as the attorneys for Wynn and Tompkins have promised.

The Sheriff's Office has been a loser. During nearly a week of testimony in which attorneys for Wynn and Tompkins were building a case, about a dozen employees from command staff down took the stand. Things were said in open court. Feelings hardened.

Charles Shafer, the man who got the job Wynn and Tompkins sought, certainly hasn't won. He was portrayed at times as a bumbling fool, which is far from the truth.

Land, left to clean up this mess, can't win. He can only make statements. If he promotes Wynn and/or Tompkins -- an idea he seemed to be entertaining last week judging from questions he asked attorneys on both sides — it could be viewed as judicial activism. What kind of statement is that? He will also make a statement in the amount of legal fees — if any — he awards the lawyers for Wynn and Tompkins.

At the end of the day, no matter if there is a last-minute settlement or a ruling by Land, there are no winners in a case that has seen both sides claim victory.

Chuck Williams, senior editor for content, chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.com.

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