Georgia City’s First Female Warden Loses Jail Post, Then Loses Gender Discrimination Case

A female sheriff’s employee who was demoted after the incumbent sheriff lost an election was not able to pursue a claim against the new sheriff and the local government that her treatment amounted to impermissible gender discrimination. The employee’s case was doomed when both the trial court and the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals determined that the employer had a legitimate reason for its actions, and the employee’s evidence was insufficient to prove that the stated, legitimate reason was a mere pretext for discriminatory intent.

The employee in the case was Terri Ezell, a deputy in the sheriff’s office for Muscogee County, Georgia. Ezell was a trail blazer in many ways. She was the first woman ever to rise to the rank of major in the department and also was the first female warden of the local jail.

In 2008, John Darr ran against the current sheriff, Ralph Johnson. Ezell openly supported Johnson for re-election. Johnson lost, and his successor promptly replaced Johnson’s entire command staff. Ezell was re-assigned to a position in the Recorder’s Court. Ezell’s new job had previously been carried out by a sergeant, which was four ranks below commander. Also as a part of the shake-up, several employees were promoted. Of Darr’s first 34 promotions, only six were women, and none were promoted higher than lieutenant.

Ezell sued the sheriff and the Columbus-Muscogee County consolidated government, arguing that her treatment was the result of sex discrimination. The government contended that Ezell was replaced at the jail not because she was a woman, but because Darr considered Ezell responsible for deficiencies in the lines of communication within the jail and inadequate progress toward meeting a consent decree the local government had signed with the U.S. Department of Justice following a 1990s investigation that uncovered overcrowding, racial segregation, and other problems.

The trial court sided with the employer, and the 11th Circuit agreed. Although Ezell brought her suit as a 14th Amendment violation case, the law requires courts to perform the same analysis and demand the same standards of proof as an employee who brings a Title VII gender discrimination case. The courts rejected the employer’s claim that Ezell’s re-assignment was not an adverse employment action. The change in Ezell’s employment clearly resulted in a reduction in prestige and responsibility, since she took over her new job from an employee four ranks below her, went from supervising 250 subordinate employees to 12, and eventually had to surrender her uniform.

The employer emerged successful in the end, though, since it offered legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for the move. Darr was unhappy with the lines of communication with the jail and dissatisfied with progress toward meeting the consent decree. As a result, Darr believed that new management at the jail was necessary to improve these conditions and accomplish his reorganization goals for the jail.

Once the government provided this legitimate reason, the law required Ezell to show that this stated reason was a mere pretext for a discriminatory bias. Although the court looked at Darr’s record of promotions — namely, the disparity between men’s promotions and women’s promotions — with a degree of suspicion, this alone was not enough to establish that a discriminatory bias fueled the decision to re-assign Ezell in particular. “Without more, a jury would have to rely on impermissible speculation to find in her favor,” the court decided.

When you’re pursuing (or defending) a gender discrimination case, there are many components that go into putting together a winning case. For sage advice and strong representation in your workplace discrimination case, contact the diligent Georgia employment discrimination attorneys at Parks, Chesin & Walbert. Our attorneys have the skills and the knowledge to help you with presenting your case and pursuing a successful outcome.

To speak with one of our lawyers about your case, call 404-873-8048.

More blog posts:

What Conduct Is (And Is Not) Grounds for a Federal Title VII Action in Georgia, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Sept. 23, 2015

Woman Wins Workplace Discrimination Action in US Supreme Court After Her Muslim Attire Clashed With Company Dress Code, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, July 22, 2015

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