Three veteran Muscogee County sheriff’s officers have filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against Sheriff John T. Darr, claiming the sheriff demoted and reassigned female officers after taking office while promoting lesser qualified men. The lawsuit accuses Darr of retaliating against the women after they supported incumbent Sheriff Ralph Johnson in the 2008 election.
The plaintiffs in the suit are Terri Ezell, the former Muscogee County Jail warden who was demoted after Darr took office, Lt. Donna Tompkins and Lt. Joan B. Wynn, three women who filed claims in September with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The lawsuit, filed after unsuccessful settlement negotiations, seeks an unspecified amount of damages, back pay and front pay and a permanent injunction prohibiting the Sheriff’s Office from “engaging in unlawful employment practices.”
The suit was filed Friday afternoon in U.S. District Court but was not made public until Monday morning. The women are represented by Buckley & Klein, an Atlanta law firm that specializes in employment law.
In addition to Darr, the Columbus Consolidated Government, City Manger Isaiah Hugley and Human Resources Director Tom Barron are named as defendants in the suit.
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The 28-page complaint outlines a pattern of gender discrimination within the Sheriff’s Office that allegedly began when Darr took office. It claims, for instance, that only one female officer was promoted during the first 21 months of the new sheriff holding office, while 22 men moved up the ranks. It claims women are entirely absent from the command level -- captains, majors, commanders and chiefs -- of the Sheriff’s Office.
“Since taking office in January 2009, Sheriff Darr has regularly and repeatedly discriminated against female sworn officers and created a glass ceiling making it difficult, if not impossible, for women to get promoted,” the suit states.
Darr, in an interview last week, denied allegations that he deliberately passed over women for promotions, adding the department’s percentage of women holding rank is in keeping with the national average.
“What we’ve tried to do since I’ve come into office is open up a lot of opportunities for the females in our organization to work in a lot of different areas when they weren’t given that opportunity before,” he said. “That wasn’t the problem we had within the Sheriff’s Office.”
The sheriff is out of town and could not be reached Monday for further comment. City Attorney Clifton Fay said, “We will be filing appropriate responses” to the lawsuit “and it will be defended vigorously.”
Attorneys for the officers didn’t respond to an interview request.
The lawsuit comes as the Georgia Bureau of Investigation is reviewing whether another female Sheriff’s Office employee, Regina Millirons, improperly accessed protected employee records when she and attorney Mark Shelnutt sent Mayor Teresa Tomlinson a list of concerns about Darr’s administration and a stack of “supporting” documentation that included a part-time deputy’s medical information. Alluding to the federal lawsuit, Shelnutt said last week that Darr, in calling for the GBI probe, had gone on the offensive because “he knows that there’s a hurricane coming.”
Though the officers suing Darr have outlined their grievances in detail, bringing a case like this all the way to a jury is an uphill battle, said Gwyn Newsom, a Columbus attorney who specializes in employment cases and recently won a jury verdict of more than $300,000 for a Columbus police officer in a discrimination case.
“The cards are stacked really high in discrimination cases,” she said. “It’s really the only type of case I know of where in pretty much every case that’s filed, the defense files a motion for summary judgment and summary judgment is granted in a great majority of the cases.”
To avoid the outright dismissal of the case, attorneys for the officers may use statistical analyses to demonstrate a pattern of discriminatory promoting, Newsom said. “I would imagine they’re probably going to do some comparison as well,” she said. “The court does recognize circumstantial evidence.”
According to the lawsuit, Ezell has been employed at the Sheriff’s Office since November 1983. She served as warden for several years under Johnson and, in 2008, supported his re-election campaign “to the extent that she had a yard sign on her lawn, visited the campaign headquarters and was at his headquarters the night of the election,” the suit states.
She had been third in command at the Sheriff’s Office, according to the suit, but in January 2009 was reassigned to oversee Recorder’s Court. The suit claims she was demoted in May 2010 and told by a supervisor that Darr “wanted her out of uniform,” ordering her to dress in civilian clothes from then on and stripping her of her right to carry a service weapon.
The suit states that while Ezell retains arrest power, she can no longer wear the Sheriff’s Office uniform. “This has impacted Plaintiff Ezell’s ability to work a part-time job as an off-duty law enforcement officer and, therefore, has impacted her earning capacity,” the suit claims.
Tompkins has been with the Sheriff’s Office for nearly as long as Ezell. The suit states she joined the force in November 1984, and that she supported Johnson’s re-election campaign by attending town hall meetings when the candidates held debates.
In December 2008, Tompkins learned from the Human Resources department that Darr planned to reassign her and eliminate her position as lieutenant of internal affairs and professional standards, according to the suit.
“At the time, Lt. Tompkins was the first female ever to hold the rank of Lieutenant outside of the Muscogee County Jail,” the lawsuit claims.
In January 2009, Darr allegedly told Tompkins she would be transferred to the jail to serve as a squad commander. A few months later, the suit claims, Maj. Troy Culpepper, was moved to Tompkins’ former role as head of internal affairs and professional standards, the position that Tompkins believed would be eliminated.
Tompkins and Wynn both allege they were denied a promotion to captain in April 2010, and that Lt. Charles Shafer, referred to in the suit as a “significantly lesser qualified male,” won the promotion. The suit suggests Tompkins and Wynn were more qualified because they hold master’s degrees and are graduates of the Georgia Law Enforcement Command College. Wynn, for her part, claims Darr promised to promote her to captain upon the retirement of Leroy E. Mills, the 32-year-veteran of the department. Instead, Wynn now works under Shafer and claims she has “had to perform the duties of the Captain because the male selected for the position is unable to perform the job.”
Barron, Hugley and the city of Columbus are named as defendants because Darr’s alleged discrimination happened with their “knowledge and approval,” the suit claims.
The city this spring settled a similar discrimination claim filed by sheriff’s Lt. Pamela L. Brown. The terms of the settlement included a check for more than $26,000, various benefits and a confidentiality clause.