Deputies testify in discrimination suit against Sheriff John Darr, city

Two women who claim they were denied a Muscogee County Sheriff’s Office 2010 promotion because of their gender testified in federal court Tuesday that the captain’s job they sought was given to a lesser qualified male employee.

Donna Tompkins and Joan Wynn, both lieutenants in the department and longtime employees, described a process they claim was unfair.

The two women have filed a lawsuit against Sheriff John Darr and the city of Columbus for discrimination based on the hiring process. The trial, which is expected to last all week, started Monday in U.S. District Court, Middle District of Georgia in front of Judge Clay Land.

Lt. Charles Shafer was promoted over Tompkins, Wynn and male Lt. William Drury.

“If you make promotions based on who you hunt and fish with, I can’t compete with that,” an emotional Tompkins said in her testimony that last almost six hours over two days. “I believe that Capt. Shafer was selected before any of us walked into that interview.”

Tompkins, Wynn and Drury, all had superior educational qualifications to Shafer, according to testimony. Tomkins and Wynn have undergraduate criminal justice degrees and each earned a master’s in public policy. Drury has a master’s degree in education, while Shafer graduated from high school.

Wynn testified that Darr had promised her the promotion to captain in 2008 after he defeated then-Sheriff Ralph Johnson. The Wynn and Darr conversation came after Darr was elected in November of that year, but before he took office on Jan. 1, 2009, she told the court.

At the time, Wynn was an administrative lieutenant in the jail and had supported Darr, a former jail sergeant who resigned to run against his old boss.

“He told me by the end of the year I would be the next captain,” Wynn testified.

At times Tuesday’s testimony was emotional. Both women, still employed with the department, outlined physical and mental health issues they claim began as they faced the alleged discrimination.

“I cry now for no reason,” Wynn said. “I say I am going to Wal-Mart and I start crying. It wasn’t that way before.”

The decision on who to promote was Darr’s, but the applicants were interviewed by a five-man panel that included Darr, Chief Deputy John Fitzpatrick, jail Commander Dane Collins, Maj. Randy Robertson and Maj. Mike Massey.

“If these five men went into a room and made a decision that Charles Shafer was the best qualified for an administrative captain’s job, then they discriminated against us,” Tompkins said.

On the day of the promotion ceremony, Wynn testified she was approached by Fitzpatrick, who knew she was not pleased with the selection.

“Chief Fitzpatrick told me he heard through the grapevine that a mistake was made, and if he would have known about it, he would have tried to do something about it,” she told the court.

She did not elaborate as to what that mistake was.

Darr made about 22 promotions in his first three years and all of them were men, according to testimony. The department did not promote a woman until weeks after the lawsuit was filed in 2011, according to Tompkins’ testimony. The defense countered that before the lawsuit was filed, the women had submitted gender discrimination complaints to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission a year earlier.

The case that has finally made it into Land’s courtroom looks very different from the one that was originally filed more than two years ago. Many of the original charges by the plaintiffs have been thrown out by Land or dismissed.

Former Maj. Terri Ezell was in the original suit, but a ruling this summer by Land and a decision by her Atlanta-based attorneys on Friday took her out of the complaint. She sat in the near-empty courtroom all day Tuesday as her former colleagues testified.

Ezell and Tompkins contended in the original complaint that Darr discriminated against them for political reasons because they openly supported Johnson.

Ezell was immediately replaced as commander of the jail by Darr and reassigned to Columbus Recorder’s Court. Tompkins was moved out of an administrative job in the main sheriff’s office and reassigned to the jail, which some in the department consider a less assignment.

Ezell and Tompkins claimed that their First Amendment rights were violated by Darr’s alleged retaliation. But, citing several earlier rulings, Land decided 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.

In his 48-page June 12 order, Land went so far as to say, “If you shoot at a king, you must kill him,” quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson. City Attorney Clifton Fay called it a significant victory.

At the time, Ezell remained in the lawsuit, but her only claim was she was denied her compensatory time because of her gender. Her lawyers dismissed that just before the trial began.

Edward Buckley, who represents Tompkins, Wynn and Ezell, said Tuesday he plans to appeal the judge’s decision to dismiss parts of her complaint.

“I can’t comment, but I would like to point out that certain issues are going up on appeal,” Buckley said during a morning break.

All appeals would be to the U.S. Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit in Atlanta but can’t be filed until the trial is complete, Buckley said.

The plaintiffs are expected to complete their case today, while attorneys for Darr and the city said they would be ready to present their case on Thursday.

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