Female deputy’s different treatment poses problem for sheriff

For many years, law enforcement was a male-dominated profession. Recently, police and sheriff departments have made strides to increase the number of female officers. All employers must ensure they are treating male and female employees the same when it comes to terms and conditions of employment. The sheriff of Canadian County, Oklahoma, received a recent reminder about that concept from the federal court in Oklahoma City.

Female deputy hired and promoted

In November 2013, Lisa Kopf began working as a jailer for the Canadian County Sheriff’s Office. Two months after joining the department, Kopf reported to her supervisor that she had witnessed an incident in which she believed a fellow jailer treated an inmate abusively. When her report did not result in corrective action being taken by the Sheriff’s Office against the jailer, Kopf discussed the incident with a female Oklahoma City police officer whom Kopf considered a mentor. When the undersheriff and jail administrator discovered Kopf’s discussion of the issue with the Oklahoma City police officer, they reprimanded her for going outside the chain of command and discussing the matter with someone outside their office.

In January 2014, Kopf applied for a deputy sheriff’s position. All deputy sheriff candidates must undergo a background investigation and interview. Kopf’s interview by Lt. Darnell lasted more than two hours. At the conclusion, Lt. Darnell joked he would “keep [Kopf] around as long as she did not get involved” with any male Sheriff’s Office employees.

Two months later, Kopf was promoted to deputy sheriff and received a raise. In April, she was transferred from the jail to the civil division, a transfer that Kopf preferred.

Discipline and discharge follow

The Sheriff’s Office had a verbal policy prohibiting the use of cigarettes – including e-cigarettes – while on duty, and Kopf was aware of the policy. In May, Kopf was reprimanded for insubordination based on her violation of the e-cigarette ban.

In June, Lt. Darnell conducted a follow-up background investigation interview with Kopf. When asked about prior drug use, Kopf admitted using marijuana in the past and an “unspecified drug” with her boyfriend. During the interview, Kopf did not disclose an “unfavorable circumstance” that ended a job with a prior employer. Lt. Darnell considered Kopf to have answered questions regarding past drug use and employment deceptively and recommended her termination. On July 8, 2014, Sheriff Edwards discharged Kopf.

Female deputy claims discriminatory treatment

Kopf filed her lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Office and the Canadian County Board of County Commissioners in Oklahoma City’s federal court. Among other allegations, she claimed the department had violated Title VII and discriminated against her based upon gender. Her examples of where she was treated differently from male employees included:

  • Administering a longer background interview;
  • Providing a duty belt with less equipment;
  • Disciplining for violation of the e-cigarette policy;
  • Disciplining for issues concerning her background interview.

The court looked at each accusation of different treatment. As to the background interviews, 20 other applicants underwent interviews that lasted at least one and one-half hours. Importantly, Kopf received the promotion. As to her claim regarding equipment, the evidence demonstrated that the size and fit of Kopf’s duty belt affected the amount of equipment it could carry.

The anti-smoking policy and background interview issues were more of a problem for the employer. Kopf brought to the court’s attention cases where the sheriff applied the anti-smoking policy differently to male employees. She also pointed out that a male employee had stated falsely in his interview that he had never been arrested and that no lawsuits had ever been filed against him. Unlike Kopf, the male interviewee did not suffer any consequences. These differences in the treatment of Kopf by the sheriff were sufficient to cause the court to rule that a jury will hear and decide her claim of gender discrimination.

Takeaway

Fundamentally, a claim of discrimination by an employee means they are accusing the employer (or a supervisor) of treating them differently. When faced with such an accusation – ideally, before a charge of discrimination or a lawsuit has been filed – an employer should do its homework. Ask the complaining employee to identify the employees they feel have received more favorable treatment. If the complaining employee is wrong, explain what you did to look into their complaint and why you concluded their accusation was incorrect. If you determine another employee did receive more favorable treatment, but there is a good, non-discriminatory reason for the difference, explain those circumstances and the reasoning for different treatment to the complaining employee. If the complaint has merit – i.e., there was a difference in treatment and no reason for the difference – fix it.

Kopf v. Board of County Commissioners of the County of Canadian, CIV – 15 – 0361 – HE (W.D. Okla. 6/1/16)