Eight minority corrections officers who were barred from guarding or having any other contact with former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin during his stay at the Ramsey County jail last summer are suing their employer, alleging racial discrimination and a hostile work environment.
Chauvin was booked at the county jail on May 29, the same day he was charged with murder and manslaughter in the death of George Floyd. As Chauvin arrived, all officers of color were ordered to a separate floor, and a supervisor forbade a Black sergeant from bringing Chauvin to his cell, solely because of the officers' race, according to the 30-page lawsuit filed in Ramsey County District Court on Tuesday morning.
The officers — who identify as Black, Hispanic and Pacific-Islander — said those orders by the white jail superintendent amounted to segregation and implied they could not be trusted around Chauvin because of the color of their skin.
"Credibility is critical to maintaining safety in a jail environment," according to the lawsuit filed by Minneapolis attorney Lucas Kaster. The "segregation order tarnished [the officers'] credibility and reputation and prohibited them from completing their job duties professionally."
Two officers also alleged that they witnessed surveillance footage of a white female lieutenant be granted "special access" to Chauvin's cell, where she reportedly sat on his bunk and allowed him to use her cellphone — a policy violation.
Although the jail official is not referenced by name in the lawsuit, she is identified in previous correspondence between lawyers and the Sheriff's Office as Lt. Lugene Werner.
Public records show that Werner is related to Chauvin's sister by marriage.
When reached by phone Tuesday, Werner insisted that the claims were "unfounded" and declined to answer questions about her relationship with Chauvin and his family.
Attorneys for the corrections officers told the media Tuesday that they were unaware of Werner's personal connection to Chauvin until after their clients lodged public complaints.
"Her being on duty isn't necessarily something that we would take issue with, but her receiving some special privileges and Officer Chauvin receiving some special privileges would certainly be something that we would take issue with," Kaster said during a news conference via Zoom.
The lawsuit comes roughly eight months after the same group of officers filed discrimination charges with the state's Department of Human Rights about the incident. The charges were expected to automatically trigger a state investigation, but Kaster told the Star Tribune it never gained traction — and lawyers requested the agency close the administrative file so they could pursue legal action in state court.
A MDHR spokesman confirmed that the case was closed at the charging parties' request, before a determination was ever issued. He declined to say how far along the investigation had gotten or whether one was ever started.
The Ramsey County Board of Commissioners and Sheriff Bob Fletcher pursued mediation with the officers and their counsel last July to resolve the claims, but "the parties were unable to achieve a settlement," county spokesman John Siqveland said in a statement. Before the mediation process, commissioners said they were "angered and appalled" by what happened and apologized to the employees of color.
Fletcher did not respond to repeated requests for comment Tuesday. Last June — after initially denying that such a segregation order ever took place — a spokesman for the Sheriff's Office acknowledged that the officers were kept from Chauvin and the superintendent who made that call would be temporarily demoted while the agency conducted an internal investigation. It's not immediately clear what that investigation found.
In explaining his actions, jail Superintendent Steve Lydon later told superiors that he was informed Chauvin would be arriving in 10 minutes, and made a call "to protect and support" minority employees by shielding them from Chauvin.
"Out of care and concern, and without the comfort of time, I made a decision to limit exposure to employees of color to a murder suspect who could potentially aggravate those feelings," Lydon said in a statement and provided by the Sheriff's Office to the Star Tribune last summer.
Attorneys for the officers said that rationale was never communicated to their clients, who continue to feel "deeply humiliated, distressed and negatively impacted" by his decision that day. The lawsuit alleges that Ramsey County has made no policy changes to prevent a similar incident happening in the future.
Four days after Floyd's death at a south Minneapolis intersection on Memorial Day, word spread of Chauvin's arrest and his anticipated arrival at the Ramsey County jail.
Devin Sullivan, a Black acting sergeant who typically oversees the transport of high-profile inmates, started a routine pat-down on Chauvin when he arrived. Lydon instructed Sullivan to stop and replaced him with white officers, according to the lawsuit.
Sullivan, who also serves as a major in the Army Reserve, later learned that Lydon had ordered all minority employees from the fifth floor, where Chauvin was being held in isolation.
A check of the facility's surveillance camera feeds confirmed that, the lawsuit said. Sullivan reported seeing that minority officers on the fifth floor were being reassigned from their normal duties, while those with a lighter skin tone were not.
Later that afternoon, officers of color gathered on the third floor to console one another about what they deemed a "segregation order." None was aware of a similar incident occurring in the past.
In meeting with the aggrieved officers, Lydon denied being racist and defended his decision, yet reversed the order within 45 minutes.
"I realized that I had erred in judgment and issued an apology to the affected employees," he said during an internal investigation.
All eight employees, whose tenure ranges from two to 10 years, characterized the order as the "most overtly discriminatory act" they've experienced working for Ramsey County.
Liz Sawyer • 612-673-4648