2 dispatchers sue sheriff, commissioners for violation of their rights
Two female employees of the Harrison County Sheriff’s Dept. sued Sheriff G. Michael Deatrick, the three current county commissioners and a past county commissioner in federal court last week, alleging various violations of their constitutional rights took place in their workplace.
Deana Decker and Melissa Graham had already filed violations with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and two weeks ago they filed written complaints with Harrison County Prosecutor Dennis Byrd’s office alleging possible criminal violations by Deatrick, who is in the middle of his second term in office.
According to the suit, filed June 11 by attorney Charles W. Miller on behalf of Graham and Decker, the women are seeking judgment ‘in an amount sufficient to fully compensate the plaintiffs for their respective damages,’ as well as punitive damages, legal fees and a trial by jury.
The county paid $55,000 last fall to settle four other civil-rights lawsuits filed by former sheriff’s department employees.
The latest complaint, filed with the U.S. District Court in New Albany, names Deatrick, current county commissioners James E. Goldman, J.R. Eckart and Terry Miller, and former Commissioner Jim Heitkemper as defendants.
The suit says Goldman, Eckart, Miller and Heitkemper were named because in their official capacity they failed to properly maintain the Harrison County Jail in a safe condition for employees due to their ‘respective refusal to supervise and/or control the conduct and actions of Deatrick’ and other department employees.
Because he’s named in the suit, Goldman declined comment on it; however, he said the commissioners have no real control over the sheriff.
‘We wish we had more control, but we do not,’ Goldman said.
Charles W. Miller said the removal of the county’s emergency 911 dispatch center from Deatrick’s control at a special meeting May 21 was the type of control that should have been exercised once the commissioners first learned of the allegations.
‘The sheriff is the policy maker for that jail, and the commissioners have a distinct duty to maintain the jail … in a condition that is safe for the employees and inmates,’ the attorney said. ‘We believe evidence in this case will show they had knowledge that sexual harassment at this facility was widespread prior to the allegations being made by Ms. Decker and Ms. Graham.
‘(The commissioners) had actions they could make outside of removing the sheriff,’ he continued. ‘They removed control over the dispatchers’ department and they also control the budget and purse strings of the sheriff’s department. They could have taken actions, I believe, that could have stopped (the incidents) from occurring and they could have done that several years ago.’
Greg Reas, director of the Harrison County Emergency Management Agency, is now in charge of the 911 center and supervises all dispatchers.
The lawsuit provided additional details about the allegations against Deatrick, including retaliation Deatrick allegedly made after the original complaints were filed with the EEOC.
On or about May 8, the suit said, Deatrick ‘deliberately and consciously engaged in adverse actions and retaliation against the plaintiffs.’ This caused Decker and Graham to ‘suffer injury that would likely chill a person of ordinary firmness from continuing to report other acts (of) sexual harassment perpetrated’ by Deatrick or other employees of the sheriff’s department.
The suit says Decker and Graham have suffered severe mental and emotional distress, loss of enjoyment of life, personal indignity and humiliation due to Deatrick’s ‘intentional, oppressive, malicious, exceptionally reprehensible and disregard’ of their constitutional rights.
Regarding the alleged physical advances of Deatrick, the suit says on numerous occasions from July 2006 to August 2007 the sheriff would request that Decker come to his office to discuss employment-related matters. After she came into his office, Deatrick would allegedly force himself on her in an attempt to kiss her breasts and force his hand down her clothing, and ‘further ordered her to remain quiet’ as he engaged in the conduct.
Decker contends Deatrick would confine her between his office door with his foot pressed against the door, his desk and Deatrick’s body in an effort to kiss her breasts and touch her.
In June 2007, the suit says, Graham had a similar incident where Graham came into Deatrick’s office to discuss employment-related matters. After she came into his office, Deatrick allegedly attempted to lift her shirt to expose her breasts, pinning her against the door as he tried to do so.
The women’s attorney said the suit is being filed now because a two-year statute of limitations is approaching in regards to the time frame of when the alleged incidents took place.
‘We needed to go ahead and file this initial complaint, keeping in mind there are comparable claims’ pending, Miller said.
Once the defendants have been served, they have 20 days to file an answer in federal court, Miller said. ‘That’s when the case will have its genesis, from that point forward.’