Judge says lawsuit against Varnell can go forward

Charles Oliver, The Daily Citizen, Dalton, Ga.
·4 min read

Mar. 10—A federal judge in Rome has denied a request by the city of Varnell to dismiss it from a lawsuit brought by a woman who said she was touched on her backside twice by then-Varnell police sergeant Patrick John Hayes, whom she knew, on July 5, 2018, outside a convenience store.

Judge Steven D. Grimberg of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia rejected the city's claims that the woman, Elizabeth Miller, failed to give the city "timely and proper" notice of her claim against it and that she did "not allege enough facts to state a facially plausible claim."

Miller's lawsuit, which also names Hayes as a defendant as an individual, said she has a claim against the city because of "its negligence in the supervision of its police department, including its employee, Sergeant Hayes."

The city placed Hayes on unpaid leave the day after she reported the incident. Hayes, who had worked for the police department for 11 years, resigned on July 10, 2018, after an investigation was begun by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Hayes pleaded guilty to misdemeanor sexual battery in January 2020 and was sentenced to 12 months probation. He agreed to surrender his peace officer certification and to not seek or accept employment in law enforcement. He also was required to complete a sexual harassment course at his expense and to have no contact with Miller.

The city had until Thursday to file a response to Grimberg's rejection of its request to be dismissed from the lawsuit. If Grimberg does not reverse his decision, the parties will proceed to discovery.

A phone number for Hayes could not be found.

Ibrahim Awad of the Awad Law Firm in Atlanta represents Miller and said he plans to depose Hayes and others in the Varnell Police Department, "as well as any other individuals responsible for hiring and retaining Sgt. Hayes."

"We will be requesting documents and communication about any training he received, any complaints that were lodged against him by any other person and what they did about those complaints," Awad said.

Varnell City Attorney Terry Miller said he is not aware of any other complaints.

"That is my understanding. The complaint by Ms. Miller is the first that I am aware of," he said. "They are claiming that somehow the city knew or should have known that this officer had a propensity to do the things he is accused of. The city says that is simply not the case."

Terry Miller said he believes that at some point the attorney representing the city, Andy Davis of the Brinson Askew firm in Rome, will again ask the judge to dismiss the lawsuit.

In August 2020, Awad had a billboard at the intersection of Glenwood Avenue and Waugh Street/Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Dalton asking people who have "witnessed sexual harassment by any city of Varnell police officers" to contact his firm.

"We did have people come forward to talk about (sexual) language used within the department," Awad said. "This can't be dismissed as just 'boys will be boys' or 'locker room' discussion."

The complaint filed against the city claims that "members of the City Council of Varnell received or were otherwise aware of allegations that Sergeant Hayes solicited sexual conduct from women while he was on duty in exchange for not pressing charges against them."

Jan Pourquoi served on the City Council from 2014 to 2017 and was often a critic of the police department. He was one of three council members who voted in 2017 to disband the department, citing the cost of the department and the impact two major car crashes, one of them fatal, involving on-duty police officers had had on the city's liability insurance premiums.

"That department had a culture where nothing would surprise me," he said. "But as far as Hayes trying to trade or demand sexual favors, no, I never heard that."

David Owens also voted in 2017 to disband the police department. He served 22 years on the City Council, including 14 as mayor pro tem and several months as interim mayor in 2008.

"I never heard anything about Patrick Hayes," he said.

Mayor Tom Dickson wasn't on the council at that time but said he isn't aware that any such allegations were brought to council members.

"There are no records of that that I am aware of," he said.