City settles gender discrimination suit against Sheriff John Darr for $265,000

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comDecember 24, 2013 

Judge weighs deputies' claims after Darr discrimination verdict

After more than two hours of listening to attorneys representing Muscogee County Sheriff John Darr and the two female deputies a jury determined he discriminated against in the hiring process, U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land put all the parties on the clock. Monday’s hearing came two months after a federal jury found that Lt. Joan Wynn and Lt. Donna Tompkins were discriminated against when they were not promoted to captain in 2010. Wynn and Tompkins were in front of Land asking for equitable relief that includes back pay, promotions and attorneys fees.

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After a nearly three-year legal battle, the city of Columbus has settled a federal gender discrimination claim against Sheriff John Darr stemming from a 2010 promotion, City Attorney Clifton Fay confirmed Tuesday.

The city has agreed to pay Lt. Donna Tompkins and Lt. Joan Wynn a lump sum payment of $265,000 to end the suit, which was filed in U.S. District Court, Middle District of Georgia, in 2011.

Attorneys for Terri Ezell, a party to the original suit filed against Darr, filed a motion to appeal a decision by Judge Clay Land that threw out a claim that Ezell's First Amendment rights were violated when she was demoted from jail commander by Darr after he defeated Sheriff Ralph Johnson in 2008. Ezell was a Johnson supporter.

The Wynn and Tompkins case went to trial in September, and a jury sided with the two women in their claims that Darr discriminated against them when he promoted what they claimed to be a lesser-qualified man to captain. But seven-woman, five-man jury did not award Wynn and Tompkins any financial compensation in what one juror described as a "compromise verdict."

Wynn and Tompkins went back to Land and asked for attorneys fees and relief, including promotions.

Land took care of that with a plainly worded order a month ago, in which he determined from trial testimony that Tompkins, not Wynn, would have been awarded the captain position if the discrimination had not occurred.

"If the goals of ending illegal discrimination and rectifying the harm it causes are to be accomplished, the opportunity for obtaining meaningful relief must be available here," Land wrote. "Accordingly, after careful consideration, the Court finds the relief ordered today not only authorized under federal law but absolutely necessary."

Land ordered the city to pay plaintiff's attorneys $271,974.87 in legal fees, reduced by about $50,000 from what was requested. The settlement amount is less than what Land ordered to be paid, Fay pointed out. Attorney fees will be paid out of the settlement amount, Fay said.

The judge also ordered Tompkins promoted to captain by July 1, 2016, or within 30 days of the next captain vacancy, whichever occurs first.

In addition, Tompkins shall receive pay and benefits starting July 1, 2014, until the date she is promoted to captain at the same level of compensation and benefits that she would have received had she been promoted to the captain position that is the subject of the present action.

Fay said both of those orders by Land will stand as part of the settlement agreement.

As of Tuesday afternoon no settlement agreement was on file with the federal court's electronic records system.

A call Christmas Eve to Ed Buckley, the Atlanta attorney who represented Wynn, Tompkins and Ezell, was not immediately returned.

The city's legal fees to defend the matter are approaching $250,000. Prior to last month's hearing and subsequent Land ruling, the city had paid Columbus law firm Page, Scrantom, Sprouse, Tucker & Ford P.C. $225,000 in legal fees to defend the suit, Fay said.

Ezell was in the original federal 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 in June. 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.

"The First Amendment claims of Terri Ezell are still in play," Fay said. "We are confident Judge Land's ruling will be upheld on appeal."

It has been a rough year and a half for Darr. The sheriff barely escaped a Democratic primary challenge in July 2012 from former deputy Pam Brown. Darr won the general election a year ago, but this year has had one struggle after another.

Columbus Council has questioned him about spending more than $2 million over his office's budget. In his first five years in office, Darr has spent $7 million more than budgeted by the city government. The sheriff contends the expenses are related to jail overtime and medical treatment for inmates in the Muscogee County Jail, which his office operates.

Darr also has asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to look into three recent inmate deaths in the jail.

On Nov. 8, authorities found 57-year-old Issac Kindred dead after a fight with a second inmate who has since been charged with murder and aggravated assault.

A 46-year-old inmate, Lori Carroll, died Oct. 24. Her cause of death is unclear. On Oct. 29, 21-year-old inmate Maurice Grier died of a brain aneurysm.

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