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Settlement reached with fired Devils Lake jail administrator

Denny Deegan, left, who was fired from her post as Lake Region Law Enforcement Center Administrator in the summer of 2014, has settled a federal lawsuit with the LEC after claims she was fired because she is a woman. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

DEVILS LAKE—After a four-year fight, a former Devils Lake jail administrator has reached a settlement in a federal lawsuit with the facility after she claimed leadership there fired her because she is a woman.

A stipulation for dismissal filed Dec. 31 in North Dakota's U.S. District Court says the Lake Region Law Enforcement Center and its former operations director Denny Deegan have reached a settlement out of court. The case was terminated Dec. 8.

Court documents do not detail the specifics of the settlement, including how much, if anything, was awarded to the LEC or Deegan. She had sought at least $75,000 in damages.

LEC Director Rob Johnson said he was aware an agreement had been signed but was unaware of its specifics.

"I personally do not know the amount of the settlement that was agreed upon as I have chosen and prefer not to know as it bears no meaning on our current operations," he wrote in an email as he advised the Herald to contact LEC attorney Howard Swanson.

The Herald was unable to reach Deegan or Swanson by press time.

The lawsuit stemmed from the August 2014 firing of Deegan, who was hired by the multi-county jail in 1995 as a correctional officer before being promoted to various positions, according to a complaint filed in federal court. She was promoted to the director of operations position in 2013. It is believed she is the first woman to run the LEC since it opened in the 1970s, the complaint said.

While Deegan was on sick leave, the LEC Board voted 5-3 on Aug. 20, 2014, to remove her from the position. She was replaced by Tom Rime, who resigned in June 2016. Johnson succeeded Rime.

The LEC houses inmates for Devils Lake and the counties of Ramsey, Nelson, Benson, Towner and Eddy.

Those who voted to fire Deegan cited turnover at the jail, money and overtime issues, and poor performance.

But a North Dakota Department of Labor and Human Rights report from August 2016, found turnover during Deegan's time as administrator was "slightly higher" than the jail's yearly average and she was performing her work in a satisfactory way. The report also found evidence to support Deegan's claims that she was fired because she is a woman.

"The evidence shows (Deegan) was discharged from employment, in whole or in part, because of her sex, as demonstrated by Commissioner (Ed) Brown's comment," the report said. "The evidence also shows (the LEC's) allegation concerning (Deegan's) performance is pretext to discrimination as alleged."

The comment refers to allegations Brown, a Ramsey County commissioner who was an LEC board member when Deegan was fired, said during the August 2014 meeting, "We need a man to run this place."

Brown previously told the Labor Department he did not believe he said those words, contradicting claims from Tanya Wieler, a former human resources consultant for the LEC. She also claimed he made other inappropriate comments.

Investigators listened to audio from the meeting but were "unable to hear Commissioner Brown make the alleged comment."

Brown, who is the LEC Board chairman, declined to comment on the settlement.

Deegan's complaint, which was filed May 30, 2017, in federal court, also alleged the LEC Board threatened to remove county commissioners who sat on the board and voted against Deegan's termination during a July 2014 meeting. Former Ramsey County Commissioner Bill Mertens previously confirmed those statements after he was replaced by Brown. Mertens refused to vote to fire Deegan.

"It's a witch hunt," former Eddy County Commissioner Jeffrey Pfau said during an Aug. 3, 2014, meeting. That's when the board again voted down a motion to fire Deegan.

The LEC denied all allegations by Deegan. It doesn't appear either party is admitting fault by signing the stipulation.

Johnson said LEC staff and leadership put the case behind them long ago.

"I am not one to dwell on the past or the actions of others, and I will not allow my staff to do so either," he said. "We have had a lot of work to do and I am proud of the work that our staff has done."

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers crime and education. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family raises registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as a city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

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