Federal judge rules against gay prison officers in discrimination lawsuit

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A federal judge on Friday dismissed a lawsuit brought by two gay corrections officers who alleged they were discriminated against because of their gender and sexual orientation.

For years, Officer Michelle Wood was taunted and called demeaning and homophobic names, denied promotion, and subjected to a series of discriminatory and retaliatory internal investigations after she complained about her treatment, the lawsuit alleged.

Michelle Wood and Loretta Smith at Marko Law Firm in Detroit, Friday, March 6, 2020.
Michelle Wood and Loretta Smith at Marko Law Firm in Detroit, Friday, March 6, 2020.

Wood's partner, Sgt. Loretta Smith, alleged she, too, was subjected to a hostile work environment and was demoted to the midnight shift in retaliation for Wood's complaints, the suit alleged.

But U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts said in a 24-page ruling that many of the women's claims are barred by the statute of limitations and others are unproven. Roberts granted the Michigan Department of Corrections' motion for summary judgment and dismissed the lawsuit, filed in 2020.

Both women are in their early 50s and they have been partners for about 17 years. Wood retired in October 2019 after more than 25 years of service and alleged in the lawsuit that the hostile work environment she faced means she was essentially fired. Smith still works at the Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer.

Roberts noted that Wood said a supervisor had repeatedly expressed his disgust with homosexuals and she had been called derogatory names, including "dyke."

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Those allegations could support a hostile work environment claim, but Wood could not show she ever complained about those incidents, Roberts said.

Though she was denied promotions, the Corrections Department was able to show a nondiscriminatory reason, Roberts said. Wood had violated various work rules and she could not show those reasons for denying her a promotion were a mere pretext for unlawful discrimination.

Because of statutes of limitations, Roberts said she could only consider allegations from 2017 and later and that excluded many of the allegations made in the suit.

Smith alleged she was punished for supporting Wood, but that is not sufficient to make a successful legal claim, Roberts said. Smith would have to show she was retaliated against for protected action that she herself took, the judge said.

Jonathan Marko, the Detroit attorney representing the women, said he and his clients are exploring appeal options.

"We are very disappointed by the ruling and my clients are devastated," Marko said. "They feel revictimized today."

In response to the lawsuit, spokesman Chris Gautz said the department "takes allegations of discrimination in the workplace, no matter what type — race, sex, orientation, identity — seriously and investigates such claims as soon as they become known to the department."

Contact Paul Egan: 517-372-8660 or pegan@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @paulegan4. Read more on Michigan politics and sign up for our elections newsletter.

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Federal judge rules against gay prison officers in discrimination suit

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