Citrus Co. Sheriff weaponizes physical fitness test against women, lawsuit alleges
Mike Prendergast, as seen appearing on an episode of Florida NewsMakers. (Photo: YouTube)

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A proposed federal class action lawsuit accuses Citrus County Sheriff Mike Prendergast of using unnecessarily difficult physical fitness tests to discriminate against female deputies.

The lawsuit, filed in the Middle District of Florida’s Ocala Division, alleges eight counts of intentional gender discrimination, age discrimination, and retaliation.

Few, if any, other law enforcement agencies in Florida subject female officers to such rigorous physical fitness requirements, the complaint says.

Furthermore, it alleges, the department denies women accommodations for injuries that it routinely provides for men. A request for comment to the sheriff’s office is pending.

It “has implemented these mandatory physical abilities tests despite knowing they have a disparate impact upon female employees. CCSO also retaliates against female employees who complain about this discrimination,” the complaint says.

“As a result of CCSO’s policies, patterns, and practices, female employees receive less compensation, are promoted less frequently, and are discharged at a greater rate than their male counterparts,” it continues.

The policies “systematically violate female employees’ rights and result in gender bias that pervades CCSO’s culture. The disadvantage to female employees in pay, promotion, and employment is not isolated or exceptional, but rather the regular and predictable result of CCSO’s policies and practices.”

The lawsuit alleges violations of Title VII, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Florida Civil Rights Act. It seeks an injunction ending the practices plus back pay and benefits, compensatory damages for emotional pain and suffering, punitive damages, and payment of attorney fees for the class.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Jay Lechner, of the Whittel & Melton firm’s St. Petersburg office, served notice to the sheriff’s office of the complaint this week.

According to the complaint, the fitness test — required since 2008 — features 17 elements, including quickly exiting a police car and simulating the firing of a training rifle; a 40-yard-sprint; leaping hurdles; and climbing stairs, a ladder, and a six-foot wall.

The requirement makes no accommodation for women’s physical abilities, as do similar tests administered in the military, the complaint argues, leading to a higher failure rate for them along with restricted job and promotion opportunities.

“At no time as CCSO conducted research to demonstrate why the CCSO is unique among all law enforcement agencies in Florida such that it requires its employees to be subjected to a more rigorous, nonstandard physical abilities test.”

Yet the office’s “one-size-fits-all” policy demands that even deputies assigned to nonhazardous, clerical and administrative jobs pass the test — even those “for which a physical abilities test is completely irrelevant to the successful performance of their assigned duties.”

Additionally, the complaint asserts that the office denies accommodations for female deputies who have suffered on- or off-the-job injuries that it does provide to men — such as light-duty assignments.

The three named plaintiffs — Dawn AlexanderLisa Ventimglia, and Michelle Tewell — either were suspended, fired, or forced into retirement under the policy, according to the complaint.

Prendergast was Gov. Rick Scott‘s first chief of staff and later became head of the state’s Department of Veterans’ Affairs. He stepped down to run for Citrus County Sheriff, which he won in 2016.

Michael Moline

Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.


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