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Tarrant County deputy sheriff sues Sansom Park, claiming sex, disability discrimination

Fort Worth Star-Telegram - 6/1/2024

Lawyers for a Tarrant County deputy sheriff on Friday filed a lawsuit in a Fort Worth federal court against the city of Sansom Park on grounds that she experienced discrimination based on her sex and mental health issues while employed as a police officer there.

Deputy Sheriff Sara Straten worked at the Sansom Park Police Department from June 2021 to May 2023, according to her LinkedIn profile. She was promoted to commander, the department’s second in command, in January 2022. She is now employed by the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office.

Straten claims that her authority was undermined by lower-ranking male officers, creating a hostile work environment and leading to her unlawful termination from the force, according to the complaint filed in the U.S. District Court of Northern Texas in Fort Worth.

The male officers cited in the suit are Sergeant Nathan Graves, Sergeant Victor Hernandez, Sergeant Wesley Hughes and Officer Tyler Downes.

The officers, the lawsuit states, “constantly undermined [Straten’s] authority, including but not limited to engaging in willful insubordination and other violations of policy and law,” despite her “repeated instruction, coaching and training.”

The violations included unlawful arrests/detentions, unsafe pursuits, and insufficient reports, according to the lawsuit.

“The male employees did not subject [Police Chief James] Burchfield or any other male officer to the same treatment,” the complaint states.

The city further undermined Straten’s authority by not allowing her to discipline the officers for insubordination, only allowing her to issue warnings or coachings, the lawsuit states. The officers then called for a vote of no confidence against Straten in an attempt to “adversely impact her position and undermine her authority.”

Burchfield decided to reassign the officers to different shifts in lieu of disciplinary action, and ordered Straten to advise the officers of the shift changes, causing them to believe that it was her decision to move them, the lawsuit states.

Graves expressed his disapproval of the shift changes with an outburst in which he slammed a door and threw his duty gear against metal tables and a metal mailbox, the complaint states. When Straten brought her concerns about the male officers’ insubordination and discriminatory harassment up to her superiors, she was accused of being “emotional.”

Graves filed a complaint with the department that Straten had created a hostile work environment by changing their shifts and other actions in the performance of her duties. Burchfield dismissed the complaint and informed Graves that the decision had been his and he had directed Straten to execute it.

Burchfield and the Sansom Park Police Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The complaint goes on to state that the “incessant discriminatory harassment and disparate treatment” led to a flare up of Straten’s post-traumatic stress disorder, inhibiting her ability to do her job.

She requested medical leave, during which time, she requested that she be able to attend her son’s graduation from the police academy and pin his badge on him while in uniform, which the lawsuit describes as a “once in a lifetime moment.” The city denied her request.

In May 2023, the city sent Straten a letter stating that her paid sick, vacation and personal days were about to expire, and her continued absence would soon be unexcused.

Straten went to the police station on May 9 in civilian attire to explain that she had had trouble getting a chance to see a specialist, but had some appointments scheduled soon after the date she was told her absence would be unexcused.

She spoke with Sansom Park’s current City Secretary Wendy Blocker, then a human resources representative, as well as Lt. Anissa Satterfield, who received a call in the middle of their conversation.

Satterfield invited Straten to accompany her on the call in the capacity of a civilian on a ride-along so that they could continue talking. The lawsuit states that Straten “did not make any statements or representations that would indicate that she was present in any official capacity,” and that her presence in civilian clothing clearly indicated that she was not acting as a police officer.

Later that day, Straten received a call from City Manager Angela Winkle, who fired her “under the pretext of putting the City in a position of liability by acting in the capacity of an assist officer,” the complaint states.

The next day, she received an email from Blocker stating that she was terminated for violating the department’s sick-leave policy.

Blocker and Winkle did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The lawsuit alleges four violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, three violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and six violations of the Texas Commission on Human Rights.

The lawsuit is seeking an unspecified amount of monetary compensation for back wages and back benefits, as well as front pay, compensatory damages, including emotional distress damages, and attorney’s fees and any other relief as determined by the court.

Straten is being represented by Gary Martoccio of the Florida-based Spielberger Law Group and Dallas-based attorney James Crewse. She and her lawyers did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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