Former jail commander sues Hamilton County Sheriff

Major Charmaine McGuffey circa 2015 when she was Commander of the Courts and Jail Services Division of the Sheriff's Office

Self-declared lesbian who criticized the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office for its use of excessive force against jail inmates wants her job back.

Former jail commander Charmaine McGuffey alleges in a lawsuit that she was wrongfully terminated in 2017 because of her gender, her gay sexual orientation, and her open criticism of the excessive force used against inmates in the Hamilton County jail.

The federal lawsuit filed on May 9 names Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Neil, the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office, Hamilton County, and the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners.

Over a 33-year career with the HCSO, McGuffey rose from a sworn deputy patrol officer in 1983 to be the first woman to achieve the rank of major in 2013.

On her promotion, she was assigned to command the Courts and Jail Services Division. Two men, both majors, also held division command responsibilities. The three division commanders reported to Neil and Chief Deputy Mark Schoonover. HCSO employs about 920 full time staff.

At the time of her appointment in 2013, the Hamilton County Justice Center was ranked the worst jail in the state by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections. By 2016, under McGuffey’s command, ODRC named it the best of large jails in the state, according to the complaint.

She was terminated in 2017 following an internal complaint that was investigated by Internal Affairs. The investigation concluded that McGuffey created a hostile work environment for her subordinates and was dishonest. 

In the lawsuit, she says the investigation was biased and the accusations were a false pretext used by HCSO to justify the discriminatory treatment, retaliation, and wrongful termination she suffered.

McGuffey says she was treated differently than her male peers. Her superiors berated her, undermined her authority, refused to discipline insubordinate behavior toward her, refused to review her performance, excluded her from staff meetings and withheld information essential for her duties. Her chain of command was modified without her knowledge.

In the complaint, McGuffey says inmates suffered severe injuries from the use of excessive force by deputies. Some incidents were falsely reported as accidents and others were improperly investigated or investigated in a manner to protect deputies from disciplinary action. She claims Internal Affairs failed to discipline deputies who committed gross violations of the use of force policy.

In 2016, she shared her concerns about excessive force with the sheriff, the chief deputy, and representatives from Internal Affairs, but no substantive changes were made.

After the meeting, Internal Affairs stopped consulting with her about its use-of-force investigations, even though McGuffey is certified by the Hamilton County Prosecutor’s office as a use-of-force expert for jail cases and, as the jail commander was accountable for conditions in the jail.

McGuffey is seeking to get her job back and to be awarded back pay and damages. No dollar amounts were set out in the complaint.

In August 2017, McGuffey filed a charge of employment discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The EEOC is the primary agency charged with enforcing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbids discrimination–on race, color, religion, sex (including gender identity, sexual orientation, and pregnancy), national origin, age, disability, or genetic information–in every aspect of employment.

The sheriff is elected and considers his office to be sovereign, accountable only to the voters of Hamilton County.

The board of county commissioners, however, approves the HCSO budget. In 2017, the board allocated $76.6 million, about one third of the $230 million in total general fund appropriations, to the sheriff’s office.

By Mike Brown,