Fayette County

Jury says no adverse actions taken against jail officer

Justin Crawford, a corrections officer at the Fayette County Detention Center who claims he was disciplined unjustly at work because of his role in a 2006 lawsuit against the local government, has lost his battle in federal court in Lexington.

After hearing more than three days of testimony, a jury decided Thursday that no materially adverse employment actions had been taken against Crawford. But the jury did not make a decision about whether Crawford was the subject of retaliation at the jail.

Crawford, described by his attorney, Thomas Miller, as "the face of the 2006 lawsuit," claimed that he was treated too harshly or shouldn't have been disciplined at all when he broke or allegedly broke several jail rules after the suit was settled in 2008. He claimed that other jail employees who committed similar or even more serious jail rule violations than he was alleged to have committed had not had as serious disciplinary action taken against them.

"They'll be on the warpath now," Crawford said of his bosses after the verdict.

"I thought we had a good case and we were right," Miller said, adding that he would be exploring what action to take next, including whether to appeal the decision.

"We think the verdict speaks for itself," said Susan Straub, a spokeswoman for Lexington Mayor Jim Newberry.

In 2008, the city agreed to pay Crawford and more than 300 other current and former jail employees $1.15 million in cash and paid leave time to settle the 2006 suit. The plaintiffs in the suit had alleged that the local government violated labor laws by not paying for overtime and depriving workers of meals and rest periods.

Besides the $1.15 million in cash and paid leave time, the city was to pay more than $1.74 million to attorneys from the firm Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs, which represented the city, and $870,000 to the Miller, Griffin & Marks, which represented the workers.

After the 2006 lawsuit, more security cameras were placed in the jail, free meals for employees were discontinued, and disciplinary actions against employees were ramped up, with Crawford, in particular, becoming a target of retaliation, Miller said. Defense attorney Tracy Jones from the city's law department told jurors that the cameras were installed for safety reasons, not to spy on employees, and that the free meals were discontinued because of budget cuts.

Miller described Crawford, the lead plaintiff in the 2006 suit, as a good man, beloved by those working under his command, who has made a few mistakes.

The trial focused on two incidents in particular for which Crawford was disciplined — one involving food eaten by employees at the jail on Thanksgiving Day 2008, the other involving Crawford's working at an off-duty job.

Crawford received an oral warning for insubordination for allowing jail employees to eat in their work areas on Thanksgiving Day 2008. His superiors had told him that snacks could be brought into the prisoner intake area, where he works, on that day, according to testimony. Jail supervisors had previously allowed employees to eat snacks, but not meals, in their work areas.

Many hours in the case, including in a previous hearing, were devoted to discussion of what constituted a snack and what was considered a meal.

According to testimony, the food eaten in the intake area on Thanksgiving included brownies, cookies and other desserts, cheese cubes, and vegetables with dip. There was no turkey and dressing. Several jail employees told the jurors that Crawford should not have been disciplined or was disciplined too harshly.

Because the jail has a "progressive" disciplinary system, with each subsequent violation of a similar nature carrying a stiffer penalty, Crawford was later suspended from his job for a week without pay for working part-time at Collins Bowling Center on Southland Drive — an approved off-duty work site for jail employees — without first turning in a written request for permission to take the second job. Crawford's immediate supervisors recommended that he receive a written reprimand for insubordination; those higher in the jail hierarchy wanted him to be suspended.

Crawford admitted the mistake, but he indicated he considered the infraction a paperwork issue and not a serious offense. Crawford lost $1,046 in pay and benefits because of the suspension. He was seeking to get that back, as well as other compensatory damages and punitive damages.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader

  Comments