Phenix City has agreed to pay $150,000 to settle the sexual discrimination lawsuit of a police sergeant who claimed she was excluded from the department’s “good-ole-boy network,” avoiding a trial set to begin this week in U.S. District Court in Opelika, Ala.
The sole plaintiff in the case, Sgt. Christina J. Presley, resigned from the department as part of the settlement, said City Attorney Jimmy Graham. Presley’s 14-year tenure with the department had become increasingly strained, and Graham said her willingness to quit marked a turning point in the negotiations.
“We were ready to try it, but once they called and started talking about her not being employed any more, that’s when the negotiations really got revved up,” Graham said.
The settlement seemed to reflect uncertainty on both sides on the eve of trial. Had Presley been awarded even a trivial amount of damages, the city “could have been hit for over $200,000 just in plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees,” Graham said.
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“They had some weak areas in their case, and we had some weak areas in our case,” he said. “Really and truly, her attorney is the one that started the negotiations that led to the settlement. He was concerned about some things more so than we were.”
The settlement, reached verbally on April 5, calls for Presley and the Birmingham, Ala., law firm that represented her each to receive $75,000, according to two people familiar with the deal. Presley and her attorneys could not be reached for comment Monday.
The deal came about a month after a federal judge denied the city’s motion to dismiss the claim and ruled the case had enough merit to be decided by a jury. The lawsuit, which sought punitive and compensatory damages, stemmed from an August 2009 run-in that led to Presley being suspended for insubordination after she disobeyed a supervisor’s order to jail a drunken man suspected of second-degree assault.
Presley testified in a deposition that she couldn’t, in good conscience, charge the man because her investigation revealed he acted in self-defense. Had the case gone to trial, Presley’s attorneys likely would have argued that Presley’s punishment was disproportionate to disciplinary actions taken against male officers in recent years.
Presley and other officers had been dispatched to an alcohol-fueled stabbing in the 1100 block of 14th Avenue one Friday evening. Presley, who was a corporal at the time, was assigned lead investigator in a confusing case that included competing witness accounts of a drunken assault.
Tommy Newsome, who suffered a deep cut to his arm, claimed that Frank Jerome Cobb attacked him with a box cutter. Cobb admitted stabbing him but insisted that Newsome hit him over the head with a metal chair.
Capt. W. Curtis Lewis, a defendant in the lawsuit, interviewed Newsome at The Medical Center and told Presley that “Cobb needs to go to jail,” according to court documents. But Presley found another witness to the assault who claimed Cobb was acting in self-defense. She was unable to communicate the additional information to Lewis, and she was asked to turn in her badge the next Monday after Lewis found out she had disregarded his order.
Presley was suspended a week and denied a promotion to sergeant, a rank she later achieved after a term of probation. Presley claimed she was vindicated in her decision to let Cobb go when a grand jury later declined to indict him on the assault charge.
A potential weakness in the city’s case had been the fact that two male officers, including a sergeant who outranked Presley, were aware of Lewis’ directive to charge Cobb. Those officers were not disciplined because Presley was the lead investigator.
But Police Chief Ray Smith has maintained that Presley botched the case and may have endangered the community by freeing Cobb in his inebriated state. Smith also pointed out that Presley faced immediate termination under the city’s code of conduct but was given a lesser punishment.
“That night I do not believe, as a department, we should have let a drunk man leave the police department who had just sliced open a man,” Smith said in a deposition. “If the next day it was determined that he had acted in self-defense, I would have fully supported dropping the assault charge. But he should have been placed in jail and charged with, at least, fighting in public, at least public intoxication, and at least a preliminary charge of suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon.”
Depositions revealed a difference of opinion among high-ranking officers regarding Presley’s punishment. The highest ranking female officer in the department, Capt. Phyllis Pendleton, had been expected to testify at trial about “the popular crowd” at the police department and discrimination she has allegedly encountered over the years.