A U.S. District Court judge’s ruling in a discrimination suit against Sheriff John Darr and the Columbus Consolidated Government represents a “significant” victory for the defendants, City Attorney Clifton Fay said Monday.
U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land set the tone for the 48-page ruling with the opening words: “If you shoot at a king, you must kill him.” Land, paraphrasing Ralph Waldo Emerson, was alluding to two of three plaintiffs’ claims that they were discriminated against because they publicly supported former Sheriff Ralph Johnson in his bid for reelection against John Darr.
The employees, Terri Ezell and Donna Tompkins, claim to be victims of a retaliatory vendetta by Darr when he took office and restructured the command staff almost completely. The third plaintiff, Joan Wynn, claims Darr denied her a promotion based on her gender.
Ezell, who had been in charge of the county jail and was transferred to Recorder’s Court, alleged that Darr retaliated against her because of her support for Johnson, demoted her because of her gender and denied her compensatory time because of her gender.
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Tompkins, who was a lieutenant in administration and was transferred to a lieutenant’s position at the jail, also alleged that Darr retaliated against her because of her support for Johnson, and demoted her because of her gender, but also that he denied her a promotion because of her gender.
The lawsuit targets Darr individually and in his capacity as sheriff and the Columbus Consolidated Government. Attorneys for the defendants had sought a summary judgment against the plaintiffs on all of their claims.
Land denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on the allegations by Tompkins and Wynn that they were denied promotion because of their gender and on Ezell’s claim that she was denied comp time because of her gender. Those claims remain pending for trial before the court.
All other claims in effect against Darr and the city were dismissed.
Ezell and Tompkins claimed that their First Amendment rights were violated by Darr’s alleged retaliation. But, citing several earlier rulings, Land ruled that because of the nature of the relationship between a sheriff and his or her deputies, requiring political loyalty as a job requirement does not violate the Constitution.
“Although the First Amendment generally prohibits discrimination based on political affiliation, certain government employers can insist upon political loyalty as a legitimate job requirement,” Land wrote. “Under our First Amendment jurisprudence, the unique relationship between a sheriff and his deputies permits such a requirement.”
Fay, who represented the defendants along with Kirsten Stevenson of Page, Scrantom, Sprouse, Tucker and Ford, said that aspect of the ruling was a huge win for the defense.
“This is a very significant ruling for the city,” Fay said. “It completely removes the First Amendment claims from the case, which significantly reduces the issues that we have to deal with.”
Ezell’s comp time claim should be, “fairly easy to deal with, either with a jury or as a matter of law because a major in the sheriff’s department is not entitled to comp time whatsoever,” Fay said.
Regarding the remaining claims by Tompkins and Wynn that they should have been promoted, Fay said: “We think it will be pretty easy for the sheriff to explain why he promoted who he did promote over the last four years.”
Fay said reducing the issues still on the table also significantly reduces the city’s and Darr’s financial exposure. Darr’s being named individually as well as officially exposes him to personal financial claims, but Fay said the bar is set high for the plaintiffs to succeed there.
“They would have to show that he almost willfully violated someone’s constitutional rights, and there’s not going to be any evidence of that,” Fay said. “He can certainly explain why he’s promoted who he has promoted, and there have been men and women promoted.”
Darr also feels confident that if the remaining claims got to a courtroom, he will prevail.
“I was happy with his ruling. Like anyone, of course, I would have preferred summary judgment on all the claims,” Darr said. “But I feel that when we go to court and all the truth comes out, that I’ll prevail in court.”
All three plaintiffs still work for the city. Ezell is still over the Recorder’s Court. Wynn is a lieutenant in the administrative bureau, and Tompkins is an administrative lieutenant at the county jail.
Wynn could not be reached for comment and both Ezell and Tompkins referred questions to the plaintiffs’ attorney, Cheryl LeGare, with the firm of Buckley and Klein in Atlanta. LeGare however was unavailable for comment.