Feds: State destroyed evidence in women’s prison suit

Jonathan Oosting

Lansing — The U.S. Department of Justice is asking a federal judge to impose court sanctions on the Michigan Department of Corrections for “negligent destruction of highly relevant documents” in a lawsuit alleging discrimination against female officers at the state’s only women’s prison.

Federal attorneys claim state destroyed “post orders” from 2009 to 2014 that detailed duties and responsibilities of the female officers at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility near Ypsilanti.

The corrections department failed to preserve the documents “after they had received notice of anticipated litigation,” prosecutors said in a Dec. 13 motion.

The missing post orders contain “critical information” needed for the U.S. Department of Justice to prove its case that the state discriminated against women by implementing a broad female-only assignment policy that locked women into specific jobs, according to attorneys.

The state “strongly disagrees” with the assertions, according to corrections spokesman Chris Gautz.

The department “has retained and produced all post orders since the lawsuit was filed in 2016,” he said in a statement.

Gautz declined further comment on the case but noted Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office, which represents the department, plans to file a full response in court.

The original complaint filed by the U.S. Department of Justice in June 2016 accuses the state of forcing women to work excessive overtime at expense to their health. The suit alleges the state also “unnecessarily” denied transfer requests from female employees who wanted to work at another prison.

Sanctions now sought against the state would put the Department of Justice “closer to the position in which it would have been but for the destruction of the evidence,” wrote attorneys for the federal government.

Prosecutors are essentially asking the judge and jury to assume the post orders would have supported their case by requesting mandatory “adverse inferences” and “preclusive instructions” when the case goes to trial, as currently scheduled for March 18.

District Judge Paul D. Borman on Monday referred the motion for sanctions to Magistrate Judge Mona K. Majzoub, who is expected to decide the request without oral arguments from state or federal attorneys.

Requested sanctions include inferences that food service, yard, property room and electronic monitor assignments were either given only to women or predominately to women from 2009 through 2014. The sanctions would also preclude the state from arguing the job duties were different than those of current officers to the extent that would have prevented the state from lifting the female-only assignment policy.

“The requested inferences are reasonable as they conform with the current record evidence and merely assert what the United States could have established if it had access to the destroyed post orders,” wrote federal attorneys.

The state has acknowledged the corrections department applied to the Michigan Department of Civil Service for additional female-only assignments in March 2009 but has denied allegations it violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

A final pre-trial conference is set for Feb. 19 in Detroit.