U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land issued a sweeping ruling Wednesday, ordering the promotion of a female deputy discriminated against by Muscogee County Sheriff John Darr and the city to pay more than $270,000 in attorneys fees and expenses.
The case went to trial in September, and a 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.”
Land took care of that with a plainly worded order, 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.”
Ed Buckley, an attorney for Tompkins and Wynn, said Land’s ruling was not unexpected after listening to the judge’s comments during a Nov. 18 hearing for the plaintiffs to argue for relief in the wake of a mixed verdict.
“I believe that Judge Land is a fair-minded judge, and he obviously believes in following the law,” Buckley said. “His words are very encouraging, not just to us, but to anyone who reads them and to any women who might find themselves in a situation similar to Lt. Tompkins and Lt. Wynn.”
Darr still contends that he did nothing wrong.
“With Jesus as my savior, I know I didn’t do it,” Darr said. “It is unfortunate that taxpayer money is being used to defend me when I didn’t do it. I know people are going to say I am being hard-headed about this.”
Tompkins promoted to captain by July 1, 2016, or within 30 days of the next captain vacancy, whichever occurs first.
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.
The city to pay $271,974.87 in legal fees, reduced by about $50,000 from what was requested.
Land maintains jurisdiction over the matter for purposes of enforcing the injunctive and equitable relief granted. Land made note that federal judges are not equipped to be city personnel directors, but he pointed out the situation was created by Darr.
“The Court understands that such relief may not be the ideal way to make employment decisions, but Defendants did bring this on themselves, and inconveniences caused by their own conduct cannot stand in the way of awarding equitable relief to remedy unlawful discrimination,” Land wrote.
City Attorney Clifton Fay said in a statement that the city and Darr are reviewing the court decision.
“We are grateful that no relief was awarded to one of the plaintiffs and that plaintiff’s requested attorney’s fees were substantially reduced by the Court,” the statement read. “If the plaintiffs choose to appeal any further issues, the Sheriff and Columbus will vigorously pursue all appellate remedies available.”
Including the amount the city is ordered to pay Buckley’s firm, the legal fees bill to Columbus taxpayers is about $500,000 thus far in a case that both sides say they will continue to pursue.
The city’s legal fees to defend the matter are approaching $250,000. 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, Fay said.
In the ruling, Land said he relied on trial testimony to make the decision the captain’s job that went to Lt. Charles Shafer would have gone to Tompkins had there not been discrimination.
“If the Court granted both Plaintiffs this equitable relief, one of them would necessarily be better off than she would have been had the unlawful discrimination not occurred,” Land wrote. “The evidence presented at trial clearly established that Lt. Tompkins likely would have received the promotion had gender not been a motivating factor in Sheriff Darr’s decision. Sheriff Darr testified at trial that Lt. Tompkins was his number two choice. And the commander of the jail, who is the immediate supervisor for the captain position at issue and is on the command staff, testified that Lt. Tompkins was his number two choice as well, describing her as an ‘awesome’ deputy.’”
Land determined that while Wynn may have also been qualified for the position, “she was not more qualified than Lt. Tompkins, and the overwhelming evidence at trial established that had gender not motivated Sheriff Darr, Lt. Tompkins would have received the promotion.”
The sheriff’s office has about 340 sworn officers, with 13 to 15 lieutenant slots and three captain positions. There has not been a captain opening since Shafer was promoted more than three years ago. There are two slated to open up in 2016 when Shafer and one other person retire.
Darr said he was “disappointed” in Land’s decision to order Tompkins’ promotion.
“I know that will be disheartening to a lot of lieutenants in this department,” the sheriff said.
Darr has put in place an assessment and testing program that he will use to fill the captain’s openings he controls.
Buckley said he plans to file additional motions in the District Court on the behalf of Wynn.
“We obviously would have been happier if both prevailed, because we think both were qualified,” Buckley said. “We understand where Judge Land is coming from. We, however, think the law would have allowed Judge Land to rule in favor of both.”
Buckley did not specify what relief he would be seeking for Wynn.
Former jail commander Terri 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.
Buckley said that Ezell will appeal that Land decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit.
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.