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Judge rules against ex-trooper in State Patrol suit
One of state's first female officers sued over discrimination claims
0808francis bennett

The chances that one of Georgia’s first female state troopers will prevail in an age and gender discrimination lawsuit appear bleak after a ruling from a federal magistrate.

U.S. District Judge Julie Carnes has yet to rule on whether a lawsuit filed by Francis Bennett against the Georgia State Patrol will go forward, but U.S. Magistrate Judge Christopher Hagy recommended to Carnes that the suit be dismissed.

The recommendation is not binding, and Bennett’s attorney late last month filed an objection to Hagy’s findings.

Bennett, now 64, was fired from her job as commander of the Blue Ridge post on the last day of 2006 on the basis of seven charges of misconduct. She sued the State Patrol, alleging a double standard of treatment for women that included more reprimands for female troopers. Bennett also alleged in court filings that her First Amendment right of free speech was violated. Among the charges cited in her firing was that she used profanity and verbally disparaged another trooper.

Bennett was one of four women who became Georgia’s first female state troopers in 1978. The Cumming resident worked for a time in the Gainesville post before commanding the post that covers Fannin, Gilmer, Towns and Union counties.

In his 73-page report and recommendation, Hagy wrote that Bennett "is unable to establish that the defendants violated her free speech rights under the First Amendment" and that her First Amendment interests "were outweighed by the interests of the GSP," which had "a compelling and heightened interest in maintaining order, enforcing its internal policies and regulations, and promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs."

Hagy also wrote that Bennett could not show evidence that she was fired because of her age or gender. The magistrate noted that Bennett’s replacement as post commander after her firing was a woman.

Bennett’s charges that there was a double standard for women also did not impress the judge, who wrote that Bennett could not point to "any similarly situated male comparator who had two or more complaints made against him in a two-month period by members of the public who were complaining about his allegedly inappropriate or unprofessional behavior during a traffic stop or other traffic incident."

Bennett alleged in court filings that women were "grossly underrepresented in the State Trooper ranks of the GSP," but the judge said she did not present any facts to support her argument.

"Assuming the plaintiff is correct that women are underrepresented in the State Trooper ranks of the GSP, that fact alone does not prove intentional discrimination against the plaintiff," Hagy wrote.

Bennett’s attorney responded with employment statistics in an objection to Hagy’s report. Of the state’s patrol’s 730 troopers, fewer than 20 are women, according to the document. There are eight women in the position of corporal or higher, compared with 236 men who hold the rank of corporal or higher.

There are no female majors and there has never been a female lieutenant colonel or colonel, who serves as commander of the State Patrol.

"While the fact that women are still being excluded from employment as State Troopers is, by itself, not sufficient to propel Bennett’s gender discrimination claims past summary judgment, it does serve as evidence that systematic gender discrimination exists within the GSP," Bennett’s attorney, David Ates, wrote.

Russ Willard, a spokesman for the Georgia Attorney General’s office that is representing the state patrol, said this week that the office could not comment on pending litigation.

Ates did not return several messages seeking comment.