Jury orders District to pay $900,000 to 4 police officers in retaliation case

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A federal jury has ordered the District to pay four D.C. police officers $900,000, plus legal fees, because supervisors retaliated after they filed racial discrimination complaints in 2006.

A U.S. District Court panel ruled against the District on July 7, and the following day awarded Donald Smalls and William James $250,000 each and Frazier Caudle and Nikeith Goins $200,000 each. The jury sided with but made no award to a fifth plaintiff, Sholanda Miller.

D.C. police spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump said they were aware of the decision and that "at this time, the department intends to appeal."

City labor leaders said the award marks a rare victory for officers in a civil rights claim against the Metropolitan Police Department. Although there have been a couple of such settlements paid since 2007, employee rights litigation against the District is mounting.

"We have so many of these type of cases, whether it's retaliation for bringing an Equal Employment Opportunity situation or retaliation against a whistleblower," said union leader Kristopher Baumann, chairman of the Fraternal Order of Police MPD labor committee, citing four active cases. "One of the problems we have in this department is, management personnel do not understand how the law operates, and they don't particularly care to understand how it operates."

D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), chairman of the judiciary committee, said there is no place for discrimination in the District's 4,000-member force and that he hoped it is not the "tip of the iceberg."

"It's hard to draw a lesson about today's department based on a case from 2006 under a different chief," Mendelson said. Noting the rise of whistleblower complaints, he added, "The bigger question to me is why the government continues to litigate measures which cost tens of thousands of dollars, when it would be better to just settle these cases."

In the February 2008 filing, the five African American officers alleged that four days after they submitted an anonymous racial discrimination complaint in June 2006 against Lt. Ronald Wilkins, a new supervisor of a specialized 1st District vice investigation unit, commanders announced that the unit's employees would have to reapply for their jobs.

Beginning on Aug. 24, 2006, and over the next two months, the five wrote and filed formal complaints with the D.C. Office of Human Rights and the federal government. Each was reassigned to a less desirable post by Assistant Police Chief Diane Grooms, then a commander, who deferred to Wilkins' wishes, officers claimed.

Lawyers for the government said Grooms acted on her own for unrelated reasons, not amounting to illegal retaliation.

A jury deliberated fewer than five hours after an 11-day trial, ruling in favor of all five and awarding damages to four. They are also seeking back pay. The award was first reported by the Washington Examiner.

"We have a right to complain about discrimination, but it doesn't mean anything if your employer can punish you for complaining," said the officers' lead lawyer, Jennifer Klar of the Washington law firm Relman, Dane & Colfax. Klar said the officers were each awarded close to the maximum permitted against large District employers.

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