Federal Judge Orders Civil Rights Lawsuit Against Pocomoke, State of MD to Move Forward
Judge Frederick Motz ruling means the case alleging government officials discriminated against the city’s first black police chief has cleared a key legal hurdle and will now enter discovery and possible depositions – by Stephen Janis and Taya Graham
TAYA GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham, reporting for The Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland.
I’m standing outside a Federal courthouse, where a judge has just allowed a major civil rights lawsuit against Pocomoke City, in the State of Maryland, to move forward. The suit alleges the City and State discriminated against Kelvin Sewell, and two other black officers who filed EOC complaints alleging discrimination.
The suit was joined by the Department of Justice, who agreed with the officers’ charges. But Pocomoke and the State of Maryland fought back and now a Federal Court Judge, Frederick Motts, has ruled in Sewell’s favor.
To discuss the implications of this is Stephen Janis, our investigative reporter. So, Stephen can you give us an update on the lawsuit and a little bit of background?
STEPHEN JANIS: Well, of course the lawsuit was filed by Sewell and two other officers who work for him shortly after he was fired, in the summer of 2015, by the Pocomoke City Council. The lawsuit alleges that he suffered a pattern of discrimination while he was working in Pocomoke during his four-and-a- half-year tenure. Most of the lawsuit focused, or some of it, focused on a Worcester County drug task force, which one of his officers, Frank Savage, was detailed to.
And during his time in that unit he experienced discrimination, use of the “N” word, driven to something called, “KKK Lane”, a variety of things which culminated in Savage being forced out of the Union basically because of discrimination, and prompting him to file an EOC complaint.
Shortly after Savage left, and Savage filed an EOC complaint, which sustained his allegations, Sewell was subsequently fired by the Council because Sewell said he refused to fire Savage and another black officer who had been part of that discrimination complaint. And so, this is a very crucial, crucial point.
Because the State of Maryland, our own state, has been funding fighting this lawsuit even after the Department of Justice, saying these allegations weren’t true. Well, now we’re going to get to the meat of the trial. Because a Judge saying he’s allowing the trial to go forward is going to allow depositions, discovery — just a further investigation of evidence.
That means the case is going to now probably head its way into court, which is of course what the defendants in the case, being the State of Maryland and the City of Pocomoke have been fighting against now for several months.
TAYA GRAHAM: Are there any other implications to this ruling?
STEPHEN JANIS: The biggest implication is that, you know, all the arguments made by the State of Maryland saying that this suit wasn’t filed in a timely fashion; that the state was not an employer of Frank Savage when he was tasked here, that the allegations were just completely baseless because some people in the Sheriff’s office, and some people on the Task Force said it wasn’t true, that this case has no merit. The Judge has rejected those arguments. That several City officials in Pocomoke who have said they had nothing to do with it also has been brushed aside.
So, the main thing is that, at this point, both sides will have discovery. The defendants will have it, too. But the main thing is that many of the things that went on behind the scenes, that we’ve been able to uncover some of it, now we might know more about the story. For example, the City of Pocomoke, even in their filings against this, still hasn’t revealed a concrete reason why Kelvin Sewel was fired.
And the other implication, of course, is for the criminal prosecution of Kelvin Sewell. Just so people know: back in the summer of 2016, Kelvin was indicted along with his lieutenant, Lt. Lionel Green, for misconduct. For allegedly interfering with an accident investigation involving two parked cars, in the summer of 2014. That prosecution was called by Sewell’s defense as retaliatory. After a one-day trial he was convicted of one count.
And I think that this lawsuit going forward is going to cast even more questions and doubt on the motivations behind this prosecution. Because if evidence comes forward, even more evidence that this was indeed retaliatory; that because these officers filed EOC complaints, which is protected under the law, were fired — I think it’s going to raise doubts about why Sewell was eventually prosecuted.
So, our investigation revealed that one of the defendants in this lawsuit, which would be the Worcester County State’s Attorney’s office, was actually working with State prosecutors to prosecute Sewell. They gave all the evidence, which ended up being part of the case that Emmet Davitt and the State prosecutor. So, this has big, big implications in the state.
TAYA GRAHAM: So, Stephen, what happens now?
STEPHEN JANIS: Well, what happens now is the Judge has scheduled a conference for all parties to schedule among other things, discovery — which means that both sides will get access to emails, and all sorts of other types of evidence. They’ll be able to review correspondence between officials, City officials, and they’ll be able to use Sewell’s emails as well, and some of the more details that have been missing from this case.
The other part of it is they will probably start scheduling at some point pretty soon, depositions. Which means people like the city officials, like, let’s say Mayor Bruce Morrison, or members of the Council, will have to give sworn statements in front of lawyers, talking about many of the issues in this case. So, this case will really get to the point where the people who have been making allegations back and forth really have to come and sit down and answer those. Obviously, from there you would decide whether to go to a trial.
So, this is a really big step in the case. This means you can’t just toss the case to the side. One way or another it’s going to be resolved.
TAYA GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham and Stephen Janis reporting for The Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland.