Acting D.C. City Council Chair Phil Mendelson (D-At-Large) said he would like to see the city’s attorney general consider settling a little noticed discrimination lawsuit filed against the District in January 2011 by two lesbian members of the Metropolitan Police Department.
Det. Kennis M. Weeks and Officer Tonia L. Jones charge in a 38-page complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia that they’ve been subjected to discrimination, harassment and retaliation based on their sexual orientation and sex since September 2006, when they disclosed they were in a same-sex relationship.
“One would hope the alleged conduct is no longer continuing,” said Mendelson, who chairs the Council committee that oversees the police department. “And I would hope that the department has gotten better since the time of these allegations.”
The lawsuit charges that at least seven sergeants, two lieutenants, and three officers from the Seventh District – along with Seventh District Commander Joel Maupin – played some role in carrying out the alleged discrimination.
Police officials “created and tolerated an environment in which employees could harass plaintiffs on the basis of their sex and sexual orientation without any investigation or repercussions,” the lawsuit says.
It says Weeks and Jones filed complaints of discrimination based on sexual orientation and sexual harassment in October 2007 with the police department’s Equal Employment Opportunity Compliance Division.
“On Nov. 19, 2007, MDP’s Assistant Chief, Peter Newsham, made a decision not to investigate plaintiff’s internal EEO complaints,” the lawsuit says.
Cathy Harris, the attorney representing the two women, said Newsham instead told them they should file their complaint with the city’s Office of Human Rights.
“They were shocked that the department wouldn’t address this internally,” Harris said.
When asked about the case following an Aug. 9 news conference on an unrelated issue, Newsham told the Blade he couldn’t discuss details of a pending case.
“With regards to any lawsuits, you know that people draw up whatever type of complaint they want, and just because someone raises those issues doesn’t mean they’re true,” he said. “Things have to be verified and investigated. So I think it’s premature to draw any conclusion from a civil complaint that’s filed somewhere,” he said.
D.C. police spokesperson Gwendolyn Crump said police are referring all inquires about the case to the D.C. Attorney General’s office, which is defending the city against the lawsuit in court.
Ted Gest, a spokesperson for D.C. Attorney General Irvin Nathan, said his office also had no comment on the case. Gest said that at the present time, the office’s response to the case – Tonia L. Jones and Kennis M. Weeks vs. the District of Columbia – is reflected in their court filings.
The court filings on behalf of the city contest some of the claims made by Weeks and Jones on procedural and technical grounds, saying their attorneys missed filing deadlines requiring that the claims be dismissed. A March 23, 2011 brief filed by Nathan and three other attorneys from the Attorney General’s office disputes several of Weeks and Jones’ discrimination allegations on the merits, saying Seventh District supervisors based their actions on standard personnel practices rather than discrimination.
On July 25, U.S. District Court Judge Rosemary M. Collyer approved a motion by the city calling for dismissal of several of the claims in the case, including those alleging that the police action violated Weeks and Jones’ First Amendment constitutional right of freedom of speech by allegedly retaliating against them when they filed an internal police grievance about the alleged discrimination.
Collyer also dismissed the plaintiff’s claim that police and the city violated their Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process and equal protection under the law.
But the judge left in place most of Weeks and Jones’ other claims of sexual orientation discrimination under the D.C. Human Rights Act and sex discrimination under Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In her ruling, Collyer noted that the D.C. Office of Human Rights found probable cause in several of the lawsuit’s allegations that police officials committed sexual orientation and sex discrimination against Weeks and Jones in violation of the D.C. Human Rights Act. Attorneys for Weeks and Jones have since transferred the case from the Human Rights Office to the court’s jurisdiction.
In its brief contesting the lawsuit, the D.C. Attorney General’s office argued that the Office of Human Rights also found no probable cause that “plaintiffs were subjected to disparate treatment on the bases of sexual orientation and sex” regarding their specific allegation that they were not allowed to ride together in a police cruiser on patrol duty.
The attorney general’s brief also says no probable cause was found for an allegation in the lawsuit that a decision to give police cases that Jones was working on to male detectives was based on discrimination.
A court scheduling conference is set for Aug. 28, where court observers say a trial date might be scheduled.
Mendelson said he was unaware of the lawsuit until the Blade informed him about it last week and provided him with an online link to the complaint.
“Of course we don’t know what the facts are because this is still pending in court,” Mendelson said. “It’s discouraging to read this kind of alleged conduct. And of course the judicial process is one where the facts will be determined,” he said.
“I would hope that the police department is addressing this and the attorney general is looking at whether it would be better for the District to just settle the case and ensure that this kind of conduct no longer occurs,” Mendelson said.
Although filed in January 2011, the case received no known news media coverage until Aug. 3, when Courthouse News Service published an online story reporting that Judge Collyer dismissed some of the claims in the case while upholding others. Three days later, Huffington Post published a similar story with the link to the Courthouse News Service story.
News of the case is likely to raise concern among LGBT activists, who have been assured by D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier that anti-LGBT bias within the ranks of the department was mostly a thing of the past and that the department doesn’t tolerate such bias.
The lawsuit says the alleged discrimination and harassment began in September 2006 after Weeks and Jones told one of their supervisors at the Seventh District, Sgt. Jon Podorski, that they were a couple. The two had been squad car partners since early 2006 and began a relationship in July of that year, the lawsuit says.
“Almost immediately thereafter, the sergeants began harassing them and subjecting them to a hostile working environment on a frequent and continuing basis,” the suit says.
“Plaintiffs complained about the discrimination to MPD in January 2007,” it says. “However, this had the effect of continuing and increasing the harassment and hostile work environment.”
According to the lawsuit, several of the sergeants named in the suit continuously made derogatory comments about Weeks and Jones in the presence of fellow officers and supervisors. Among other things, the suit says the sergeants – who served as Weeks and Jones’ supervisors – urged them to have sex with men, with one sergeant referring to Jones as the “butch one” and Weeks as the “femme one.”
During a May 2007 party in which many Seventh District officers were in attendance, one sergeant shouted in a loud voice to both Jones and Weeks, “Do you wanna fuck?” the lawsuit says.
“Plaintiffs were mortified, embarrassed and threatened by this verbal assault, which was within earshot of many of their colleagues,” the suit says.
In September 2007 an officer told Weeks and Jones he wanted to watch them have sex and that he would “pay them $5,000 for the opportunity to do so,” the lawsuit says.
“On February 17, 2009, someone put an open tampon and parts of the tampon wrapper on plaintiff Weeks’ desk,” it says. “Plaintiff Weeks reported the incident to defendant and requested an official investigation. Defendant never initiated an investigation,” according to the lawsuit.
Attorney Harris said the two women were shocked and horrified over an October 2006 incident that occurred shortly after they informed Podorski of their relationship.
“Plaintiffs and Sgt. Podorski responded to a call on Stanton Road regarding an alleged assault with a deadly weapon,” the lawsuit says. “The matter concerned a mother, a relative and a child. The mother and relative had responded violently after the child had informed them that she was gay.”
The lawsuit continues: “Plaintiffs intended to arrest the mother and the relative for the violent offenses. But Sgt. Podorski instructed the plaintiffs to instead take the child to the Psychiatric Institute of Washington and have her committed because she was gay,” the lawsuit says.
“He also stated that no arrest should be made because it was ‘only’ a domestic disturbance. Plaintiffs objected to this order,” the lawsuit says. “Sgt. Podorski was later investigated by the MPD for this incident and, upon information and belief, he was suspended. Nevertheless, despite the complaints made by plaintiffs about Podorski’s harassment and his discriminatory conduct, he has never been disciplined for his harassment of plaintiffs,” the lawsuit alleges.
Harris said her clients separated as a couple over a year ago, in part, due to the stress they encountered from the harassment and discrimination charged in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit, among other things, calls for compensatory damages and back pay for what Jones claims is the loss of a promotion due to bias on the part of police officials.
“I really want to make it clear about my clients,” Harris said. “They’re not doing it because of the money. They’re doing it because what happened to them was wrong and they want to make sure that this doesn’t happen to any other officer or detective or employee of the MPD, no matter what their sexual orientation or gender is.”
Harris said she never informed the media about the case because Weeks and Jones were hopeful that the case could be resolved quietly.
“They were not seeking publicity – just relief and justice,” she said.
Now that the case is beginning to receive public attention, Harris added, “Anything the gay community can do to help D.C. understand that this is totally unacceptable and should be resolved – we’re happy to get that support.”
“Even though this case is still under investigation, the allegations show a deeper homophobia present in MPD than leadership, including Chief Lanier, publicly acknowledges,” A.J. Singletary, chair of Gays and Lesbians Opposing Violence (GLOV) told the Blade, Wednesday. “Rather than fight the charges on procedural and technical grounds, GLOV urges MPD to investigate the actual allegations and fix not only the specific issue with the two women involved but also the broader problem of homophobia within MPD.”