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Judge reserves decision on dismissal of $9m suit against Jefferson County


A federal judge reserved decision Friday on a motion by Jefferson County to have a $9 million job discrimination lawsuit brought by a county corrections officer dismissed.

Janice M. O’Dell, Ellisburg, filed the suit in September against the county and its sheriff’s department claiming she was suspended from her job in May 2012 after being wrongfully accused of having “relationships” with inmates both at the Metro-Jefferson Public Safety Building and outside after the inmates were released.

She subsequently was charged in a grand jury indictment handed up in June 2012 with two counts of first-degree promoting prison contraband and single counts of second-degree promoting prison contraband and official misconduct. It was alleged that she provided an inmate with cigarettes and a lighter sometime in September 2011 and that she provided an inmate with a lighter in April 2011. In February 2013, the two first-degree contraband counts were dismissed in County Court and Ms. O’Dell was granted one-year adjournments in contemplation of dismissal on the remaining counts, meaning that if she stayed out of legal trouble for that period, the charges would be dismissed.

Ms. O’Dell maintains that she was denied due process before being reprimanded and that her suspension was retaliation for claims she had brought regarding harassment and discrimination against department members. She contends, among other things, that a male supervisor and another corrections officer asked her to send them nude pictures of herself and, when she refused, sent her pictures of a penis. She also claims that a pattern of racism exists within the department and that she was placed under increased scrutiny by members of the department because of friendships with African Americans.

The county has responded that Ms. O’Dell has failed to present enough factual information to support her civil rights claims, but Ms. O’Dell has filed a countermotion citing case law, stating that “specific facts are not necessary” at this stage of the proceedings, as she is obliged at this point only to “give fair notice” as to what the claims are and the grounds upon which they rest.

The county further argues that there are insufficient facts to support the claims that the county has a policy or practice of discrimination or retaliation, thus making it not liable for claims regarding the alleged practices.

Ms. O’Dell’s motion claims that senior officials of the department “were themselves responsible for the use of gender disparaging remarks and actions,” providing cause to believe that a custom or policy of discrimination exists. In all, Ms. O’Dell’s motion raises 23 points in which it refutes the county’s contention that the case should be dismissed.

U.S. District Court Judge David N. Hurd, Utica, listened to arguments for about 45 minutes during a motion hearing Friday without making a ruling, according to court documents.

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