Officers' suit tossed out; judge says no bias proved
By MIKE BRASSFIELD and LEANORA MINAI
© St. Petersburg Times,
ST. PETERSBURG -- A federal judge has handed Police Chief Goliath Davis III a decisive victory in a long-running legal dispute with former narcotics officers who complained of reverse discrimination.
U.S. District Judge James Whittemore dismissed a lawsuit by four officers who said they had been punished too harshly because they are white. The case never went to trial.
The dispute had simmered for nearly three years, ever since a bitter shake-up in the city's undercover drug-fighting squad. Half of the squad was fired, demoted or disciplined in July 1998.
Roy Olsen, Jeff Riley, Leonard Leedy and Julie Gironda were among the 12 officers punished after an investigation of time-sheet fraud in the vice and narcotics unit.
Those four claimed they were treated unfairly. They said a black officer, Donnie Williams, did what they did -- improperly recorded his time for payroll purposes. But Williams got a lighter punishment.
The four white officers alleged that Williams was favored by the chief. The city maintained that all the officers were disciplined based on the severity and frequency of their violations.
For the case to go to trial, the white officers had to prove Davis intentionally discriminated against them. The judge decided they could not.
The judge's ruling, filed Thursday, boils down to this: In the eyes of the law, it doesn't matter whether the officers got a raw deal. It only matters whether they can prove they were treated differently because of their skin color.
"The plaintiffs have failed to introduce evidence that racial discrimination, as opposed to some other race-neutral factor, including personal animus, was the controlling factor in the discipline decisions," Whittemore wrote in his ruling.
It was unclear whether the officers planned further legal action. Their attorney couldn't be reached Friday. The chief, who is on vacation, also couldn't be reached.
The narcotics officers got in trouble because they taught or attended classes while their time cards showed they were working their police jobs. They got paid while ostensibly being in two places at the same time.
Davis said the officers intended to cheat the city by double-dipping.
The officers, who worked irregular hours, said they commonly filled out time sheets showing their assigned shifts instead of their actual work hours, to make it easier for payroll. When they spent time in class, they said they made up the lost work hours by flexing schedules or working overtime.
Lee Atkinson, a lawyer representing the four officers who sued, said in court that none of the officers, including Williams, could produce documentation to support their sworn word that they made up their time.
The white officers claimed Davis had a personal agenda, but Davis said the time-card investigation started with a sexual-harassment complaint.
"It went from there into the issues of payroll and falsification of payroll, to inappropriate purchasing procedures, racial concerns, sexual harassment, a whole host of things," Davis told the court.
Atkinson argued that an employer's true motivations can be difficult to ascertain, but that the punishments established a "mini-pattern": Only Williams escaped unscathed.
Olsen, an 18-year veteran, was suspended for 60 days and demoted to officer. Riley, a 12-year officer, was fired. Leedy, a 24-year veteran, was suspended for 60 days. Gironda, a 13-year employee, was suspended for 10 days.
Williams got only a written reprimand.
However, police administrators gave several reasons why Williams' case was different, and the judge wrote that he found their arguments persuasive.
Williams had permission to attend evening courses even though they conflicted with his work schedule. He came in early to make up time, even though those make-up hours were not documented on his time sheets. He was not on two payrolls at the same time, although the city helped pay his college tuition.
Two of the four officers who sued still work for the department. Olsen and Gironda are patrol officers. Riley contested his firing but lost. Leedy retired.
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