Valdosta Daily Times

Local News

May 18, 2012

Appeals court rules against Sheriff Prine

Lawsuit by fired employees given green light to go to trial

VALDOSTA — U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit overturned Tuesday a federal judge’s decision to dismiss a suit against Lowndes County and Sheriff Chris Prine, based on sufficient evidence to allow the case to go before a jury.

In 2011, federal Judge Hugh Lawson dismissed three former sheriff’s office employees’ claims they had been wrongly terminated by Prine.

Appeals court documents state the initial decision erred in finding that Prine and the county are entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity, which rules that states are not immune from suits made by citizens of other states in federal courts and was later expanded in 1890 (Hans v. Louisiana) to include suits brought against a state by its own citizens.

The appeals court also ruled that the summary judgment was inappropriate because sufficient evidence was provided for a reasonable juror to conclude that the sheriff’s proffered reasons for the plaintiffs’ terminations were pretextual and were motivated by intentional discrimination.

“Basically the defendants presented a version of facts to the trial judge and we presented a version of facts that were supported by evidence,” plaintiffs attorney Harlan Miller told The Times Wednesday. “Basically, the judge disregarded or didn’t give much credence and basically accepted what the defendant said on every point.”

Miller stated that when conflicting evidence is presented, as occurred in 2011, a jury trial is the recommendation to sort through the differences.

“The sheriff will be the most unbelievable witness at his own trial. There’s no way he can get up at the trial and stand up to cross examination,” said Miller. “He basically retracted everything he said everywhere and left himself open for a lot of inconsistencies.”

No court date has been established.

Miller confirmed that settlements had been discussed between parties prior to the 2011 trial, but said the offer provided by the county and sheriff’s office were not reasonable. Miller said his clients have requested they be reinstated in the same capacity at the sheriff’s office and be paid their lost salaries.

Neither county officials nor Prine offered any comment on the appeal decision or case.

Rick Strickland, the sheriff’s attorney, did not respond to requests for comment by The Times.

Thomas Crews, Leanne Bennett and Michelle Keene were employed at Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office and allege that Prine wrongfully terminated their employment because they supported the sheriff’s opponent during the 2008 campaign for sheriff, according to court documents. The allegations made by the trio included wrongful termination based on sex, pregnancy, disability, age, former complaints of discrimination and for requesting time off from work.

Keene, who was a captain at the time, led the Jail Operations Division; Crews, a former lieutenant, worked in investigations; and Bennett, ranked as sergeant, supervised the K-9 unit. Bennett’s husband also worked at the sheriff’s office and supervised Bennett, and she is the sister of J.D. Yeager, Prine’s 2008 opponent for sheriff. All three were said to have supported Yeager’s candidacy for sheriff. The court document stated that after Prine assumed the position of sheriff, all three were terminated.

Prine assumed office at midnight on Jan. 1, 2009. According to previous Times reports based on court documents, Crews was fired Dec. 31, 2008, because Crews “talked bad about Prine in Lake Park during the campaign” and openly campaigned against him. Prine admitted in 2011 that this was partly the reason behind the termination.

In 2000, Crews received knee-replacement surgery and was unable to run or stand for long periods of time. Prine testified that he had someone else in mind that he wanted in Crews’ position, that “he knew Crews had a gambling problem and that his length of service was a reason to terminate him,” according to court papers.

Leanne Bennett campaigned for her brother, Yeager, during the 2008 election and Prine stated that at a community event, the two had gotten into a disagreement.

On Jan. 2, 2009, Prine terminated Bennett’s employment because “he needed loyal people to work for him.” Bennett asked if she could be transferred to a different unit that was not under leadership from her husband and Prine denied the opportunity. Bennett was seven months pregnant and submitted a request for maternity leave and alleged that her termination violated her right to freedom of political and familial association, her right to be free from gender and pregnancy discrimination.

  In the case of Keene, she began working for the sheriff’s office in 1994. She received a series of promotions and favorable annual performance evaluations. She had never received a written reprimand for deficient performances. In court documents, the complaints on Bennett and those made by Bennett started during the 2008 campaign.

  Prine terminated her on Oct. 26, 2009. Prine stated in a termination letter that it was due to her “insufficient leadership and performance as a supervisor.” Keene claims she was terminated because of her gender and in retaliation for complaining about Prine’s discriminatory actions; also because she supported Yeager during the 2008 campaign.

 

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