No last minute settlement of Darr suit from Columbus Council

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comNovember 26, 2013 

Lt. Donna Tompkins of the Muscogee County Sheriff's Department, left, Sheriff John Darr and Lt. Joan Wynn walk to the federal courthouse Wednesday morning. The jury continues to deliberate on the gender discrimination suit that Tompkins and Wynn have filed against Darr and the City of Columbus. 09.18.13

ROBIN TRIMARCHI — rtrimarchi@ledger-enquirer.com Buy Photo

With a mid-morning deadline today, attorneys representing Muscogee County Sheriff John Darr and the city of Columbus have been working to settle a gender discrimination case against the sheriff.

Ed Buckley, the Atlanta attorney representing the plaintiffs, said his side made a final offer to the city and Darr Tuesday afternoon, but he declined to discuss specifics of the offer.

"It all depends on what their lawyers recommend to the city councilors, and if they accept it," Buckley said late Tuesday afternoon. "That is our final offer. They will either accept it or decline it."

Any settlement would have to be approved by Columbus Council, which met Tuesday night. Council did go into executive session for the purpose of discussing litigation. But after a brief closed-door meeting, councilors took no action on the Darr case.

The case went to trial in September, and a federal court jury sided with Lt. Joan Wynn and Lt. Donna Tompkins in their claims that Darr discriminated against them in 2010 when he promoted what they claimed to be a less-qualified man to captain. The seven-woman, five-man jury, however, did not award Wynn and Tompkins any financial compensation in what one juror described as a "compromise verdict."

That put the case back in front of U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land, who must decide what, if any, equitable relief to award Tompkins and Wynn. Attorneys for Wynn and Tompkins have also asked Land to award them nearly $300,000 in attorneys fees to be paid by the city.

Land held a hearing on Nov. 18 to consider the requests from Wynn and Tompkins. Land told both parties at the end of that hearing he would issue his ruling on attorneys fees and equitable relief sought by Wynn and Tompkins at 10 a.m. the day before Thanksgiving.

He urged them to consider a settlement if possible and set the time of the release after Tuesday’s Columbus Council meeting.

Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson kept abreast of the settlement talks.

"The parties have been diligently working to see if a resolution is possible," Tomlinson said. "I don’t know if we are going to be able to work something out by the time Judge Land makes his ruling."

In that post-trial hearing, Wynn and Tompkins asked Land to:

• Award them back pay of $23,000 to be split equally, which he said he would not consider because the parties agrees to let the jury determine that matter.

• 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. They later amended that to more than $290,000 for work required to prepare for the post-trial hearing.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers contended because the jury found for them, they were entitled to attorneys fees paid by the city.

Prior to this month’s hearing, the city had paid Columbus law firm Page, Scrantom, Sprouse, Tucker & Ford P.C. $225,000 in legal fees to defend the suit, City Attorney Clifton Fay said.

This case has been ongoing since 2011 when Wynn and Tompkins filed suit in U.S. District Court claiming that Darr discriminated against them in the promotion process. Darr promoted Lt. Charles Shafer to captain out of a four-person pool that included Wynn and Tompkins. Shafer had more experience as an employee in the jail, where this captain would work, than the two women, but he only had a high school diploma while both of them had graduate degrees.

Wynn and Tompkins sued Darr, claiming gender discrimination as part of a broader suit that included First Amendment violations.

Former jail commander Terri Ezell was in the original suit that also claimed Darr retaliated against Tompkins and Ezell because they supported former Sheriff Ralph Johnson in the 2008 election that Darr won.

Land threw out the retaliation claims. The judge set the tone for his June ruling with the opening words: "If you shoot at a king, you must kill him." Land was paraphrasing Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Ezell also claimed Darr denied her compensatory time because of her gender, a claim Land left in the suit. On the eve of the trial, Ezell voluntarily dismissed that claim, taking her out of the suit that went to trial in September.

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