LAWSUIT Mahoning Co. deputies allege discrimination
The corporal's rank should have been phased out, lawyer says.
YOUNGSTOWN -- Two Mahoning County Sheriff's Department corporals who failed the sergeant's test were demoted to deputy, a move their lawyer calls racial discrimination.
Columbus attorney Percy Squire filed a civil rights lawsuit in U.S. District Court a few days ago on behalf of John S. Peace and William Walker, both of whom failed the sergeant's test and were demoted from corporal to deputy. The case is assigned to U.S. District Judge Peter C. Economus in Youngstown federal court.
But Sheriff Randall A. Wellington said the moves were necessary because the position of corporal was abolished in the union contract. Corporals who failed the promotional test were demoted to deputy but retained their same pay, $19.09 per hour, he said. The highest paid deputy earns $18.09 hourly. The lawsuit against Wellington alleges Peace and Walker, both 51, were discriminated against because they are black. Peace, of Campbell, was hired in March 1989. Walker, of Youngstown, was hired in 1984.
The sheriff acknowledged that the demotion to deputy wiped out whatever supervisory powers Peace and Walker had as corporals. He said Peace, who had been a supervisor in the jail, is now assigned to the courthouse annex; Walker, who had been a road patrol supervisor, is now assigned to the jail.
Wellington said the sheriff's department has no black sergeants because none of four black corporals passed the promotional exam. One of the four has since retired.
"If you didn't pass, you lost status, even though you retained pay. So the problem, even though the union agreed to it, is that they demoted people and the exam was supposed to be promotional," Squire said from his Columbus office. "If you want to demote a person, you have to put them on notice, give them the grounds and accord them a hearing."
More than money
Squire said Peace and Walker, as corporals, occupied positions in the hierarchy that gave them supervision over others and increased stature in the department. It's not, he said, merely a matter of dollars.
The lawsuit asks that Peace and Walker be restored to the rank of corporal. It also asks for compensatory damages of no less than $75,000, other damages, attorney fees, interest and costs.
"They didn't have to compete -- come in first -- they just had to pass," Pat Daugherty, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 141/Ohio Labor Council senior staff representative, said of the corporals who failed the test. "By law, the sheriff can abolish positions."
Daugherty told The Vindicator that the union doesn't consider members' color. He said that, over the past several years, the sheriff's department has developed into a professional police department.
Squire said Peace and Walker voted against the contract change but were outvoted. He said they were compelled to participate in the test even though it was contrary to their interest.
"It's unconstitutional -- you can use the exam as a basis to promote but you can't take property away from a person if they don't pass the test," Squire said. "You can deny them a promotion -- we aren't complaining about the fact they weren't promoted."
Squire said the corporal's position should have been phased out through attrition. He said the sheriff should not have demoted Peace and Walker without cause.
The Columbus lawyer said the sheriff's department does "some very convoluted things -- it's amazing."
The sergeant's test was given in 2002, Wellington said. Squire's lawsuit says that his clients exhausted all other remedies relevant to their claims.
In October 2004, the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, at Squire's request, gave Peace and Walker right-to-sue letters. The right to sue should not be taken to mean that the Justice Department made a judgment on the merits of the case, said the civil rights analyst who provided the letters.
Wellington said the courts will have to decide if the contract change is a violation of rights.