By Todd Richmond
Madison (AP) – Waupaca County officials have agreed to pay nearly $142,000 to settle allegations they refused to promote a sheriff’s deputy because she was a woman, federal prosecutors announced Thursday.
The county also must promote Julie Thobaben to detective sergeant within the next three years and review its equal employment and nepotism polices to ensure employees are protected from discrimination and retaliation, the U.S. Department of Justice said in a statement. The deal notes, however, that the county denies discriminating against Thobaben.
The county will pay Thobaben $141,641 in back pay and interest, attorney’s fees and damages as part of the deal. The county’s attorney, Jenifer Binder, said in a telephone interview Thursday morning that the county chose to settle the case because it was putting too much strain on the sheriff’s department
Thobaben’s personal attorney, Colleen Bero-Lehmann, didn’t immediately return a message.
Federal prosecutors filed a complaint in Milwaukee last June alleging the county had violated the Civil Rights Act.
According to the complaint, Thobaben joined the sheriff’s department as a dispatcher in 1995. She was promoted two months later to patrol officer and was one of only two female patrol officers in the department when the complaint was filed.
No woman in the patrol division has ever advanced to a position higher than patrol officer, and Chief Deputy Al Kraeger characterized Thobaben as “a token,” the complaint said.
Thobaben spent nine years applying for a promotion to patrol sergeant or detective sergeant to no avail, the complaint said. Male co-workers competing with her reportedly told the detective captain they wouldn’t take orders from “a skirt,” the complaint said.
In 2006, Thobaben applied for a detective sergeant position again. She met or exceeded all the qualifications, but county officials still selected a man.
The county contended Thobaben would have had to supervise her patrol officer husband in violation of a department policy prohibiting deputies from supervising family members, according to the complaint. In 2007, the county’s personnel director told Thobaben she could no longer apply for promotions because she would be violating the policy.
But according to the complaint, detective sergeants don’t supervise patrol officers. Also, the county didn’t object to eight other sheriff’s employees supervising relatives within the department, it said. In all those cases, the supervisors were men.
Binder responded in court documents that the sheriff’s department has hired and promoted women since Thobaben was hired in 1995 and detective sergeants do indeed supervise patrol officers.
As for the “token” and “skirt” remarks, Binder said Thursday that prosecutors never substantiated the comments. She denied anyone ever said them.
U.S. District Judge William C. Griesbach must sign off on the consent decree before it can become final.
Waupaca County lies in central Wisconsin. It’s home to about 54,000 people.