By Joel Hall
Eleven Clayton County police officers have filed a federal lawsuit claiming a 2007 settlement between the county and fired sheriff's deputies unfairly denied them the opportunity to be promoted.
In a suit filed this week in U.S. District Court in Atlanta, officers insisted that the county "unilaterally" disregarded rules for promoting qualified persons by assigning sheriff's deputies to seven vacant lieutenant positions within the police department. The seven deputies were among 27 deputies fired by former Sheriff Victor Hill on his first day in office in 2005.
Grady Dukes, a senior staff attorney with the Southern States Police Benevolent Association, who is representing the police officers, released a statement Thursday on the Clayton police officers' behalf. He said the Clayton County Board of Commissioners, "violated Clayton County's civil service rules governing promotions within the Clayton County Police Department by filling newly-created police lieutenant positions with Clayton County Sheriff's deputies rather than police officers who were entitled to be promoted."
"The complaint alleges the officers have been unconstitutionally deprived of promotional opportunities within the Clayton County Police Department, and have been retaliated against for exercising their constitutional right to petition the government for redress of their grievances," Dukes said.
Several of the plaintiffs received promotions in 2009, he said, but they contend the Clayton County Board of Commissioners revoked those promotions by delaying approval of necessary funding for the positions.
As a part of a 2007 settlement between the county and deputies who sued the county after being fired by Hill, the county moved seven deputies into the police department as high-ranking officers. At the time, the 11 officers listed in the most recent lawsuit were listed on the police department's promotional roster as being eligible for those positions, according to court documents.
On Dec. 5, 2007, the Civil Service Board upheld an appeal by the 11 officers, concluding that the officers were "deprived of the opportunity to be considered for promotion" and that "the seniority of all of the appellants was adversely affected by the transfer of the seven lieutenants from the Sheriff's Department to the seven new lieutenant positions in the Police Department," according to documents filed as part of the officers' lawsuit.
On March 14 of this year, the police department's promotional roster expired, leaving the 11 officers ineligible for promotion, the officers' suit says. According to Grady, the Clayton County Board of Commissioners failed to fund promotions for the 11 officers while the two-year promotional roster was still in effect.
Kenneth Waits, one of the officers listed in the lawsuit, said the officers were forced to act. "We have been working on this for two years ... my attorney has been trying to work this out without [it] being a burden to the taxpayers," he said. "We have run into a brick wall with the commissioners. Before our statute of limitations ran out, we filed a lawsuit.
"We are suing because they violated their own rules," Waits said. "We're not asking for millions of dollars. We just want our back pay and promotions."
Among items of recourse requested by the 11 officers are "rank, back pay, and seniority as if promoted in July, 2007, that seniority of all plaintiffs be deemed superior to any of the deputies, and recovery of general and punitive damages," as well as attorney's fees, according to court documents.
Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell said the transfer of the sheriff's deputies to the police department was an "unfortunate circumstance" that arose out of the Hill lawsuit. He said the board "did what we felt was right under the circumstances."
"I believe our lawyers weighed virtually every option we had and the board chose the one that was most palatable," Bell said. "We have no desire to hurt our police officers. I hate that the police officers felt that they had to do this, but they have every right to do this. As I said some time ago to the citizens, these lawsuits would be with us. We'll be weighing what our options are and trying to move the county forward without great expenditure."
Kliff Grimes, national representative for the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, said he believes the officers have suffered due to the county's failure to act.
"Of course we had a sheriff that wasn't sensible and the county tried to fix the problem, but you borrow from Peter to pay Paul," he said. "It shouldn't have come to this. It could have been a win-win for everybody. If they [the officers] would have had a chance to be promoted before this list had expired, then none of this would have happened. When you don't listen to your employees, and end up being reactive instead of proactive, everybody ends up paying in the end."