Jackson County sheriff sued over harassment claims

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

A Jackson County Sheriff’s lieutenant is suing his boss and local officials amid allegations he was harassed and mistreated for reporting work-related hearing loss.

In the lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court, Tommy Schuette claims exposure to explosive stun grenades, or “flash bangs,” while serving on a county special response team affected his hearing. Between 2015-16, he shared concerns about remaining as its commander with Sheriff Steven Rand, but his superior “continually threatened to demote” the 20-year veteran if he mentioned the condition and called him derogatory names, according to the filing.

Besides referring to the lieutenant as “deaf and dumb” or “special needs,” Rand was a “multifaceted bigot” who uttered “numerous slurs in the presence of many individuals,” including Schuette, targeting, gays, women, African-Americans, Hispanics and the disabled, the filing claims.

After Schuette underwent a hearing test with a specialist in 2016 and provided the results to the county human resources director, Rand “became relentless in his harassment,” lawyer James Fett wrote.

The environment prompted Schuette last fall to see a therapist, who diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder, and seek an absence under the Family and Medical Leave Act, according to the filing.

In a meeting Jan. 17, he informed the human resources director and county administrator/controller Michael Overton about Rand and played recordings of the sheriff’s remarks. However, the county appears not to have addressed Rand’s conduct in a bid to “avoid … accommodating plaintiff and returning him to work,” Fett wrote. “The county’s actions constitute an actual or constructive termination of Plaintiff’s employment.”

The suit seeks lost wages as well as at least $75,000 for retaliation and a hostile work environment based on a disability.

Reached Wednesday, Rand told The Detroit News in an email that “it would not be prudent to comment about pending litigation particularly when legal counsel has not had the opportunity to review the allegations.”

In a statement, Overton’s office denied wrongdoing and said county officials were unaware of Schuette’s allegations before last month, when they “referred the matter for an independent criminal investigation to the Attorney General and the Michigan State Police.”

“The allegations, if true, are absolutely abhorrent and represent conduct that is repugnant to Jackson County’s commitment as clearly set out in its many employment Policies and Practices,” the statement said. “Jackson County through its Policies has publicly and systematically condemned the contemptible speech and conduct alleged in the Lawsuit about the Sheriff.”

The county has “no legal source of authority to discipline the Sheriff or his staff,” according to Overton’s office.

In an email to The Detroit News, Overton said he could not comment further, given the investigation.

Shanon Banner, a Michigan State Police spokeswoman, said the agency is probing a previous allegation of criminal wrongdoing involving the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office.

“Because that investigation is ongoing, we won’t be providing further comment about it,” she wrote in an email, adding the probe “does not involve the non-criminal allegations made in the federal lawsuit. …We are not involved in any investigation related to the allegations made in that lawsuit.”