Deputy warden sues Department of Corrections for discrimination, retaliation

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

A Michigan Department of Corrections deputy warden who filed a discrimination complaint with a federal employment agency after being passed up for a promotion is moving his fight to court.  

Donald Ricumstrict, a 29-year employee of the department and deputy warden since 2011, filed a federal lawsuit against the state, the Michigan Department of Corrections and director Heidi Washington in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District on Thursday, alleging disparate treatment, retaliation and a violation of his equal protection rights.

Ricumstrict, who is black, said he was passed up for several open warden positions in 2018 after an interview with an all-white panel that eventually filled the vacancies with “Caucasian individuals with less experience and qualifications.” The Department of Corrections “has never hired an African American warden” to fill those positions for which Ricumstrict had applied, according to the lawsuit.

That failure to hire a black warden for those positions stemmed either from “discriminatory animus and underlying racial stigmas,” the lawsuit said, or “the disproportionate effects” of the department’s hiring process.

The department disputes several assertions of fact in the complaint and plans to argue those points in court, said Chris Gautz, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections.

A third of the prisons run by the Department of Corrections have African American wardens, Gautz said, and half of those wardens were hired and others reappointed by Washington, the department’s current director.

“We completely deny any discrimination as laid out in this complaint,” Gautz said. “The MDOC does not discriminate based on race and we didn’t do so in this case.”

Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office is working with the department on the case.

The lawsuit against the department comes on the heels of a roughly $11 million judgement awarded in September to a black husband and wife who sued the Michigan Department of Corrections for discrimination and retaliation.

Lisa Griffey worked in MDOC probation offices while her husband, Cedric Griffey, was a deputy warden who also had served in the department for 29 years. The Attorney General’s office has said it would appeal the judgment in the case.

A deputy warden at the Detroit Reentry Center, Ricumstrict currently is on stress leave, according to his attorney, and is scheduled to return to work in early November.

In his lawsuit, Ricumstrict said he filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission after he was denied a warden position in March 2018 and white candidates were instead appointed to those positions.

After filing the complaint, Ricumstrict experienced “adverse treatment,” including heavy scrutiny from the acting warden, three disciplinary investigations and “selective enforcement” against him, according to the lawsuit.

In June, Ricumstrict filed an internal discriminatory harassment complaint regarding the behavior he believed stemmed from his original EEOC complaint, which led at best to a “sham investigation,” the lawsuit said. He took a stress leave on July 29.

Ricumstrict alleges disparate treatment and retaliation violating the Civil Rights Act and violations of equal protection under the law.

“Even if not with a malicious intent, defendant Washington utilized racial criteria in her hiring decisions for the vacant warden assignments, which had a negative impact on plaintiff and all other African American candidates,” the lawsuit said.