Prison worker's suit remanded back to local court by appellate justices

David Yates Oct. 7, 2008, 7:00am

Justice Hollis Horton

Claiming she was threatened with termination if she disciplined a black subordinate, Bonnie Young, a white woman, felt her supervisor was purposely putting her between a rock and hard place so she could eventually be replaced by an African American.

When her position was finally taken from her, Young filed a suit against her employer, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Young's suit was filed Feb. 17, 2006, in Jefferson County District Court.

Soon after the litigious battle began, TDCJ filed a plea to the jurisdiction asserting that Young failed to timely file some of her claims within 180 days of the date she filed her administrative complaint. TDCJ also alleged that Young never asserted a retaliation claim in her administrative complaint and failed altogether to exhaust that claim.

The 58th District Court denied TDCJ's plea to the jurisdiction, leading the organization to appeal.

On Oct. 2 justices on Texas' Ninth Court of appeals partially affirmed and reversed the lower court's ruling, sending the litigation back to Judge Bob Wortham's court for further proceedings.

Court documents show that in the fall of 2003, TDCJ transferred Young to the Mark W. Stiles Prison Unit as an assistant warden to work under the direct supervision of then Senior Warden David Doughty. In addition to other duties, Doughty assigned Young to assist in overseeing the prison's kennel and horse operations.

Her duties included supervision of the kennel sergeant, David Conley. Michael Simmons, another TDCJ officer, was Conley's assistant kennelman. Young contends that in March 2005, TDCJ's discriminatory treatment led to her transfer from the Stiles Unit to another prison.

According to the opinion, authored by Justice Hollis Horton, Young filed her Charge of Discrimination on June 7, 2005, with the Texas Workforce Commission Civil Rights Division, alleging Doughty removed her from her position based on her gender and race.

She also asserted that Doughty threatened to retaliate against her if she disciplined Conley, whom Young alleged made unfounded sexist and racist remarks about her with Doughty's consent.

Based on Conley's unfounded allegations, according to Young, Doughty wrongfully took disciplinary actions against her, ultimately causing her position to be taken away and resulting in her transfer to a less desirable position at another prison.

Young's charging documents also state that her harassment increased following her refusal to comply with Doughty's instructions on how to respond to an internal departmental investigation.

According to Young, soon after she began supervising Conley, he began making threatening remarks about Young to Simmons, which Simmons reported. Despite Doughty's instruction that she not discipline Conley, Young issued Conley several reprimands based on his poor work performance and TDCJ policy infractions.

Then, in November of 2004, Conley filed a discrimination complaint against Young. Conley alleged that Young allowed another correctional officer to make racist remarks in his and Young's presence. Conley also alleged that Simmons and Young were engaged in a sexual relationship. An investigation failed to substantiate Conley's complaints.

Doughty met with Young and Simmons and told them that he did not allow such relationships. Doughty subsequently modified Young's job duties so that she no longer had supervisory responsibilities over the prison's kennel or field operations. Young responded by writing Doughty, complaining about Conley's spreading of false information about her relationship with Simmons and objecting to the modifications that Doughty made to her job, the opinion states.

On appeal, TDCJ contends that Young failed to present any evidence of "racially or sexually harassing conduct" occurring within 180 days of Young's filing her Charge -- arguing the trial court had no jurisdiction over Young's hostile work claim.

"… TDCJ did not submit evidence from the TDCJ employees who made these decisions. Thus, when the trial court decided TDCJ's plea, a fact issue remained regarding whether these decisions were discriminatory," the opinion states.

"We conclude that the trial court has jurisdiction over Young's hostile work environment claim."

By denying TDCJ's plea, the court implicitly allowed Young to proceed on all claims based on prohibited discrete employment decisions, including those that fell outside the 180-day filing period, the opinion states.

"We conclude the trial court erred in allowing Young to proceed on claims wholly based on discrete discriminatory acts that occurred prior to Dec. 9, 2004," the opinion states.

"Therefore, with respect to those claims, we hold the trial court is without subject matter jurisdiction to hear them. Accordingly, we reverse and render judgment dismissing any of Young's claims wholly premised on discrete acts that occurred prior to December 9, 2004. We overrule TDCJ's (second) issue in part and sustain it in part.

"For any discrete disparate treatment claims that occurred prior to Dec. 9, 2004, we reverse the trial court's order and render judgment dismissing those claims."

According to court documents, Simmons is also a plaintiff in the suit but was not an issue during the appeal process.

The suit also names Mosely and Doughty as defendants.

Alleging the defendants acted with malice, Young and Simmons are suing for punitive and compensatory damages.

They are represented by attorney John Morgan of the Lindsay & Morgan law firm.

TDCJ is represented in part by attorneys Allan K. Cook and Phillip E. Marrus.

Appeals case No. 09-07-00635-CV
Trial case No. A176-511

More News