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2 female COs suing Mich. DOC for discrimination

The suit is the latest in a series of complaints brought against the department by employees who allege they have faced various forms of workplace discrimination

By Paul Egan
Detroit Free Press

LANSING, Mich. — Two female corrections officers who are gay partners are suing the Michigan Department of Corrections for discrimination in a case that could test the scope of Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.

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, according to the lawsuit filed Monday in Wayne County Circuit Court.

Wood’s partner, Sgt. Loretta Smith, also has been subjected to a hostile work environment and was recently demoted to the midnight shift in retaliation for Wood’s complaints, the suit alleges.

The suit is the latest in a series of complaints brought against the Corrections Department by employees who allege they have faced various forms of workplace discrimination, including racial discrimination and sexual harassment, and then faced retaliatory discipline after they complained. Several of those cases have been upheld by the courts or resulted in out-of-court settlements.

Wood, 52, who worked at the Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer, retired in October after more than 25 years of service. She says she began complaining about her treatment in 2008, prompting a series of retaliatory investigations into alleged violations of work rules.

“It doubled my stress level, to say the least,” Wood told the Free Press. Eventually, she was “unable to face the hostile MDOC environment any longer,” and alleges in the lawsuit she was essentially fired.

Wood’s partner of 17 years, Sgt. Loretta Smith, 53, still works at the Thumb. In addition to facing continued harassment and discrimination, Smith alleges she is being retaliated against because of Wood’s repeated complaints about their treatment.

Chris Gautz, a spokesman for the Corrections Department, declined to comment on specific allegations in the lawsuit, citing the pending litigation.

“The MDOC 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,” Gautz said. “Also, retaliation is not tolerated in this department and all claims of such are investigated with the utmost seriousness.”

Smith used to work at Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility near Ypsilanti. Both she and her partner say things got worse after Smith transferred to the Thumb in 2015, bringing them together in the same workplace.

Wood and Smith “could not even converse or eat lunch together, as their heterosexual counterparts would, without judgment, looks, and comments from others,” the suit alleges.

Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act bans discrimination based on sex, including discrimination based on pregnancy, and also bans sexual harassment. But it doesn’t specifically mention sexual orientation.

The Michigan Civil Rights Commission says gay people are covered under the definition of discrimination on the basis of sex. Michigan’s former attorney general, Republican Bill Schuette, said in a 2018 opinion that gay and transgender people are not covered by the law. But the current attorney general, Democrat Dana Nessel, disagrees with that opinion and told the commission it is not bound by the opinion Schuette issued.

Currently, a petition drive is underway and legislative efforts continue in Lansing to try to make a ban on discrimination against gay people explicit in state law. But until that happens, the lawsuit brought by Wood and Smith “could be a groundbreaking case,” said Jonathan Marko, their Detroit attorney.

“There’s a conflict right now in the current state of the law,” which the case could help to resolve, he said.

The suit also brings claims under the U.S. Civil Rights Act. Similar debates persist about the scope of the federal anti-discrimination law, and cases are pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Wood said she has been subjected to investigations that were both completely unfounded and ones in which she was singled out for selective enforcement of prison rules.

For example, a 2017 allegation that she was romantically involved with a male prisoner was found to be without merit, she said. But she said she had complaints upheld against her in 2017 for possession of an eyeglass case that she had carried into the prison for years, and in 2018 for walking one of the dogs prisoners train at the prison to help veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and other disabilities. Other officers, who are mostly straight white males, have done the same thing and not faced discipline, she said.

Wood said the most serious incident arose in 2018, after she found and reported prisoners in possession of rope, a cellphone, and other contraband. Against normal practice, the prisoners involved were not moved to segregation, which endangered her safety, she said. That was one of several instances in which she complained all the way to Heidi Washington, the department director, without relief, she said.

“I repeatedly begged them, Heidi Washington specifically, to try to come to some resolution so I could resume my employment,” Wood said. “I got nothing.”

In September 2018, Wood filed a complaint after a supervisor told her she needed to start “playing the game” and “kissing his ass,” the suit alleges.

As soon as Wood’s complaint against the supervisor was dismissed, “that’s when they sent me to midnights,” this January, said Smith, who had worked the day shift since 2016.

“It was to get at me because I wasn’t there,” said Wood, who had retired about three months earlier.


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