A six-person federal jury has awarded a former Ohio Highway Patrol trooper more than $2.6 million in damages and lost wages after agreeing that she was discriminated against based on her gender and sexual orientation.
The civil lawsuit, filed by Stacey Arnold Yerkes in May 2019 in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, alleged that Yerkes, who worked as a Highway Patrol officer in the Findlay district’s criminal patrol unit from 1994 to 2018, was targeted by her supervisors for discipline because she was a woman and a lesbian.
According to her complaint, on her first day at work, a straight male co-worker allegedly told Yerkes, “There has only been one other female here before you, so try not to screw it up and make females look bad.”
A supervisor allegedly put an envelope in her locker containing a picture of “two naked women, embraced in a sexual position, with one woman having a snake protruding from her private area. One of the other supervisors allegedly laughed and asked her later, “Did you get our envelope?”
Another supervisor allegedly asked her if she wore underwear or ever went to a backroom together with her female friends to have sex.
Still another told her to move her “fat ass out of the way.” Yerkes claims her supervisor would frequently make disparaging comments about women, referring to them by expletive-laden slurs such as “fucking c**t,” “fucking bitch,” and “broad.”
Those supervisors also allegedly made comments like, “Women are only promoted here because they are women, not because of merit,” and “the only reason women are allowed to perform lower than men is because they are women.”
Yerkes also alleged that her supervisors reportedly said her short hair looked “stupid” and “butch.” When she arrived in makeup and earring for one shift, they allegedly commented, “What, is she trying to be a girl now?”
When Yerkes requested to take family leave for the birth of her son, her request was denied, allegedly because she was married to another woman, and was told that “it’s not the same” as a request from a heterosexual employee’s request for family leave.
After that denial of family leave, she alleged she began receiving punishments that were out of line with what her male heterosexual co-workers received for similar violations of department policy.
As examples, Yerkes cited the fact that she had been disciplined for being one minute late for her shift, while male colleagues who arrived 26 minutes late received no punishment.
She similarly claimed that she was disciplined for leaving her cruiser running and unattended outside the Highway Patrol post, for not wearing a hat during duty, and for not testifying at a court case while she was on sick leave — all infractions for which male co-workers were never disciplined, reports The Columbus Dispatch.
Yerkes also claimed that she was asked to show a tattoo on her forearm that she had covered with a medical sleeve. She refused to show her tattoo, which may have been in violation of department policy had it not been covered by a medically-approved sleeve. Her supervisor then accused her of insubordination for not showing the tattoo — placing her in a catch-22 situation.
Although Yerkes filed a discrimination complaint internally with her supervisor, the Ohio Highway Patrol, she claims it was never investigated after her supervisor informed his superiors of the matter.
In January 2018, she filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging she was treated differently due to her sex and sexual orientation. Three days later, she was disciplined and placed on involuntary administrative leave for violating the department’s tattoo policy, while male co-workers with visible tattoos were never disciplined.
On Feb. 9, 2018, Yerkes was offered a “last chance agreement,” which is used in disciplinary proceedings by law enforcement agencies.
Under the agreement, a person must have no disciplinary actions against them for a period of time, or risk being fired. Yerkes claimed, in her lawsuit, that one condition of the agreement was that she withdraw her EEOC complaint. Three days later, she retired rather than risk termination.
She subsequently filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against the law enforcement agency and four supervisors in May 2019, alleging that her civil rights had been violated due to the disproportionate treatment she was receiving. The Ohio Highway Patrol, represented by Republican Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, denied all the allegations against it.
Ultimately, the case went to trial on July 31, 2023. Following six days of testimony, the jury found in favor of Yerkes on all four questions posed to them, including whether the Ohio Highway Patrol had retaliated against her for the EEOC complaint.
The jury ultimately awarded Yerkes more than $1.3 million in compensatory damages, more than $624,000 in back pay, and more than $684,000 in front pay, or pay that she otherwise would have earned had she been able to continue working.
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