WARNING: Elements of this story are graphic. Discretion is advised.
HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — A new discrimination lawsuit filed against Madison County Sheriff Blake Dorning, members of the sheriff’s office and Madison County officials claims multiple instances of sexual misbehavior – with at least one caught on tape – along with racial discrimination.
The federal lawsuit was filed Monday and claims 21-year-investigator Marina Garcia was retaliated against for reporting the problems to her supervisors.
It includes claims that Garcia set up recording equipment that captured a sheriff’s office employee involved in a sex act with a deputy in the Criminal Investigation Division office.
Garcia’s Florence-based attorney Michael Weathers told WHNT News 19 today that Garcia decided recording what was happening in the office was necessary to help show what she was experiencing.
“Investigator Garcia felt it would be futile to complain to Sheriff Dorning and Chief Deputy Sheriff Jernigan,” Weathers said. “That nothing would be done and her only recourse within the sheriff’s office was to video and audio record what was going on.”
The Madison County Sheriff’s Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Garcia claims when she complained about the culture of harassment and a supervisor’s relationship with a subordinate in her office and tried to share her recording, she was punished, threatened and demoted.
The lawsuit claims that Garcia complained about her supervisor Charles Berry, a defendant in the case, who headed the Criminal Investigation Division. In a portion of the suit about Berry, Garcia also mentions an anonymous female colleague alleged to be having an affair with Berry.
“Investigator Garcia complained and reported that because of Anonymous’s relationship with Cpt. (Charles) Berry, Anonymous would take over Garcia’s job and tell Investigator Garcia what to do and not to do,” the lawsuit claims.
She also complained that Berry’s involvement with a subordinate interfered with her work and created a sexually hostile working environment, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit claims “Anonymous” used Garcia’s desk chair as part of her “props” for performing oral sex for male sheriff’s office employees and using Garcia’s desk ruler to measure the size of their genitals.
“Investigator Garcia complained that Cpt. Berry’s relationship with Anonymous was based on sexual favoritism,” according to the lawsuit. “Investigator Garcia complained and reported that Anonymous did what was expected of her by male supervisors in the Sheriff’s Office in order to obtain favorable performance evaluations and power in the Sheriff’s Office, to get favorable job assignments, and to further advance herself as far as the male dominated supervisory staff of the Sheriff’s Office would allow her to advance.”
Garcia’s lawsuit also contends that within the department racial slurs against Hispanics were commonplace, including remarks about her husband and his immigration status.
The lawsuit cites a number of such comments, including, “Investigator Garcia was told by Lt. Ron Derting to not help any Hispanics/Mexicans with car tags or anything else in any shape, form, or fashion. Lt. Derting told Investigator Garcia that Hispanics/Mexicans would blow up the Madison County, Alabama Courthouse.”
The lawsuit also lists a slur made by Berry about an African-American senior employee. It also says a leader in the department opposed the promotion of African-Americans.
The lawsuit contends male employees in the sheriff’s office engaged in sexual misbehavior and other improper acts without facing any consequences.
And it alleges that Capt. Michael Salomonsky, another named defendant and the current head of the Criminal Investigations Division, had a number of “inappropriate posters” on the walls of his office, including one that read, “NOTICE SEXUAL HARASSMENT IN THIS AREA WILL NOT BE REPORTED, HOWEVER, IT WILL BE ‘GRADED.’”
The lawsuit alleges that the issues arose after Garcia was transferred to work in the Sex Offender Registration Notification Act (SORNA) Office in November 2014 and experienced sexual harassment and racial discrimination.
The lawsuit says Madison County and the Madison County Sheriff’s Office failed to follow their policy regarding handling sexual harassment and discrimination claims.
The lawsuit claims that after she raised complaints about her treatment, she met with then-Chief Deputy David Jernigan in January 2016. She offered him a copy of the video she recorded, but he refused it, told her she was being demoted to either road patrol or to a school resource officer position and raised the possibility of charging her with a crime, the lawsuit claims.
The lawsuit also alleges the encounter left Garcia so shaken that she was directed to take two days off to compose herself.
She accepted the school resource officer job but also spoke to county human resources officials about her concerns. They accepted the videotape, the lawsuit says, and pledged to give it to Jernigan.
Her lawyer notified the county in March 2016 that she had been treated unlawfully, the lawsuit claims. The suit claims she was suspended without pay for two days in April 2016. The suit alleges they gave her a position back with the Criminal Investigation Division but at a lower seniority level. It says her pay had been cut from January to June of 2016.
The lawsuit also claims that when she returned to work, she was given an unusual office:
(Officials) … “assigned Investigator Garcia to a room which only had a desk and folding chair in it. The room was dirty. The room was remotely located away from her coworkers in CID. Investigator Garcia was isolated. The isolation caused Investigator Garcia severe mental and emotional anguish – all of which violated” her Constitutional rights, the lawsuit claims.
The lawsuit is the third discrimination claim filed by Attorney Weathers against the Madison County Sheriff’s Office in the past three months. Two of the claims, including Garcia’s, originate from current employees, and the original lawsuit filed in September was filed by a former deputy.
“It takes a lot of courage for people to come forward in a situation like this,” Weathers said. “There are others who are afraid to come forward with information and claims they have for fear of being fired or demoted or otherwise being retaliated against.”
“Others are afraid to come forward with information and claims they have for fear that their safety will be, and even lives, will be in jeopardy,” Weathers said.
“My word, this is not just any organization, this is a law enforcement agency involved in these cases.”