An Ohio jury awarded a Black cop $2 on Tuesday after agreeing that the city of Columbus discriminated and retaliated against her in violation of federal and state law.
Lt. Melissa McFadden said she was targeted by two white commanders in the police department she worked in for 26 years after she helped a Black female officer file a racial discrimination complaint. McFadden said her support of the officer led to her demotion to a position where she was under a civilian uniform clerk and could not get overtime.
McFadden sought at least $25,000 plus lost wages and legal fees in the lawsuit she filed nearly four years ago. Instead, the jury awarded McFadden $1 for the racial discrimination and another $1 for the retaliation she endured. According to reports, the verdict form did not explain the jury’s ruling.
John Marshall, one of McFadden’s lawyers, said she is pleased with the verdict.
“It was more about the principle than money. She feels like really she won,” he said.
According to the lawsuit obtained by Atlanta Black Star, McFadden was acting as a union representative when she assisted the other officer with the allegations against Sgt. Kyle Fishburn in 2016. The lawsuit alleges that the commanding officer of the internal affairs department, Cmdr. Jennifer Knight openly disregarded the lower-ranking Black officer’s claims.
“Cmdr. Knight told Sgt. Fishburn in the presence of the African-American female officer and other officers that her complaint was ‘stupid’ and ‘not going anywhere.’ Cmdr. Knight was annoyed by the complaint,” the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit further alleges that Knight threatened to “take [Lt. McFadden] out” for helping the officer.
McFadden had recorded the meeting and gave the audio to her superior, who handed it over to the police chief. The chief removed Knight from her position in internal affairs and reassigned her to another unit and, as a result reassigned Cmdr. Rhonda Grizzell, a close friend of Knight, to McFadden’s unit, the lawsuit says.
A fellow officer then warned McFadden that Cmdr. Grizzell was going to “come after” her and run her off the zone.
McFadden claims she did just that.
According to reports, Grizzell was allegedly behind an internal affairs investigation that accused McFadden of creating a hostile work environment and pitting Black officers against white officers. McFadden was stripped of her supervisory role in March 2017 and assigned to the property room while the claim was investigated.
The lawsuit said it was not standard practice for a supervisor to be immediately reassigned when an allegation is made. Instead, the subordinate is usually removed from under the supervisor’s command.
However, the lawsuit says the department changed the rule in November or December 2017. It also claims that McFadden was the only supervisor the policy ever applied to, and no other supervisor, or white officer facing complaints, was ever reassigned to the property room, which was “humiliating in nature.”
It required the lieutenant “to perform demeaning and menial tasks such as removing vest covers from bulletproof vests, taping vest panels together, stacking the vests on pallets, as well as cutting patches off of old uniform shirts and cutting old uniform pants,” the lawsuit says.
“In the time surrounding Lt. McFadden’s illegal reassignment, three white police Sergeants, three white Lieutenants, and one white Commander were accused of EEO [equal employment opportunity] violations and none of the white individuals were reassigned at all,” McFadden’s legal team said in a statement.
The complaint alleges that the deputy police chief sent an email pointing to McFadden’s complaint with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission as the motivation for the reassignment to the property room.
Former Police Chief Kim Jacobs recommended McFadden be terminated in 2018, but the safety director at the time kept McFadden on the job. The lieutenant had not yet been reassigned to her post when the lawsuit was filed in June 2018 and “has suffered and continues to suffer from severe emotional distress and a significant reduction in the enjoyment of her life,” the lawsuit says.
On Tuesday, the jury ruled that the police officials violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Ohio discrimination laws. McFadden currently works in the Columbus Division of Police in the officer wellness bureau and is expected to be promoted to captain soon. She scored higher than most of the other candidates who tested for the promotion, her attorney said.
McFadden wrote a book detailing the racism she experienced in the police force. When the book, “Walking the Thin Black Line,” was published, McFadden said she feared retaliation. Someone in division file a complaint against McFadden with the police division’s Internal Affairs bureau.
When the book was published, McFadden said she was scared of retaliation. However, in the book’s introduction, she wrote that she was “finally bulletproof” while keeping her attorney “happily busy filing lawsuits against my employer.”
McFadden’s legal team said she plans to ask the court to order the city to pay her legal fees, sealed her personnel file and prevent the disciplinary actions from being used against her in the future.
The city has accepted the jury’s verdict.
“The City Attorney’s office takes seriously any allegations of retaliation and discrimination by city employers,” Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein said in a statement. “We thank the judge and jury for taking the time necessary to understand, deliberate and decide this case. We respect their decision.”