Lawsuit: Fla. deputy denied time off to care for LEO husband
Christin Pennell alleges she was retaliated against for taking time off to care for her husband, who was struck by a driver while on duty in 2016
LAKELAND, Fla. — A Polk County Sheriff's Office deputy is suing her boss, Sheriff Grady Judd, for numerous violations of federal and state work protections.
Christin Pennell also has filed a discrimination case against her employer with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Florida Commission on Human Relations.
Pennell, who turns 28 on Monday, alleges in her lawsuit filed Oct. 1 in Tampa federal court that on multiple occasions she was denied time off from work for medical reasons related to both her and her husband, Adam Pennell, a former sheriff's deputy who was severely injured in the line of duty.
The lawsuit claims that Christin Pennell was denied protections of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). She seeks damages for lost wages, benefits, lawyer fees and other costs.
Pennell also seeks damages related to her claim that, in retaliation for her FMLA requests, she and her husband were punished in multiple ways, including being removed from her position as a tactical flight observer, a non-pilot position.
According to court documents, Pennell said she also was denied a pay raise, was made to work on her day off, was denied a transfer to the position of deputy sheriff pilot trainee and was suspended for several weeks without pay.
Adam Pennell's worker compensation benefits were suspended as part of the retaliation, the lawsuit states.
The PCSO considers Pennell's grievances to be "frivolous and without merit," spokesman Scott Wilder said Thursday in an email. "Because this is a pending lawsuit, we cannot discuss the specifics."
The Pennells are represented in their case by the Lutz law firm of Florin Gray Bouzas Owens, LLC. Partner Gregory Owens said Thursday that his client has a solid case that eclipses the law itself.
"It's how you treat people in the workplace," he said. "The most unfortunate thing in this situation is when Christin and Adam needed the sheriff the most, he had his back turned."
Owens said a gender discrimination claim will be added to the lawsuit once the administrative process is completed.
Christin Pennell, who holds a private pilot license and has a bachelor's degree from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, has worked for the PCSO since March 2011. She's currently assigned to a patrol position with an annual salary of $48,887.
In her lawsuit she said she was passed over multiple times for the position of tactical flight observer (TFO). In each case the job went to male colleagues, one of which was less qualified, documents allege. After being passed over twice, she put herself through TFO training "on her own time, without pay on her days off of work and obtained her certification," documents show.
Christin Pennell eventually was assigned to the TFO position, mostly accompanying PCSO helicopter pilots on various airborne assignments.
In her court filing, Pennell said she lost her TFO position after her husband was struck by a hit-and-run driver while attending to an injured motorist on Oct. 29, 2016.
On or around Feb. 2017, the lawsuit alleges, Pennell was ordered by PCSO chief pilot Rob Gray to turn in her flight helmet and suit because she was "focused on her husband's recovery, and defendant (Judd)" needed someone more dependable.
Adam Pennell remains employed with the sheriff's office as a crime analyst, a civilian post, with an annual salary of $42,828.