HATTIESBURG, MS - The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit today on behalf of Andre Cooley, a corrections officer for juvenile detainees with an exemplary record who was fired when his supervisors discovered that he was gay. The lawsuit claims that Cooley's constitutional rights were violated by the Forrest County Sheriff's Department and his superior officers.
"Andre's sexual orientation has no bearing on his ability to perform the job of a corrections officer," said Joshua Block, staff attorney with the ACLU Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Project. "It is well established that a public employer cannot fire an employee based on irrational fears and prejudices against gay people. But Andre's case is also a reminder that people in Mississippi who work for private companies are left almost entirely unprotected from anti-gay discrimination. There is currently no state or federal law protecting against employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation."
On June 14, while at home and off-duty, Cooley called 911 after his boyfriend became physically violent. Among the officers who responded to the call was Chief of Corrections Charles Bolton, one of Cooley's supervisors. After Cooley's boyfriend told Bolton that he and Cooley were in a relationship, Bolton told Cooley not to return to work before speaking with his immediate supervisor. The next day, Staff Sergeant of Jail Operations Donnell Brannon informed Cooley that he was being permanently terminated. Cooley asked Brannon if he was being fired because he was gay, and Brannon responded, "Yes."
Cooley has never received a written explanation for his firing. He has never been charged or disciplined in connection with the domestic violence precipitated by his former boyfriend the day before he was fired. The official police report of the incident identifies Cooley as the victim. After firing Cooley, the sheriff's department attempted to deny him unemployment benefits by alleging that Cooley had engaged in unspecified "inappropriate conduct and behavior while off duty, unacceptable for an officer." But after a hearing, an administrative law judge concluded that the sheriff's department failed to show that Cooley committed misconduct of any kind.
Cooley was raised in the foster care system from birth. He chose to be a corrections officer so he could serve as a mentor and positive role model for troubled teenagers. Cooley earned his bachelor's degree in administration of justice from the University of Southern Mississippi, and began working for the Forrest County Sheriff's Department in November 2009 where he was quickly promoted to senior corrections officer. At the time Cooley was hired, he was told that he had a better resume than any other person who had applied for the job.
"I loved my job, and I did it well. It shouldn't matter whether I'm gay or straight," said Cooley. "Because I grew up in the foster care system, I know the types of problems faced by the kids in juvenile corrections. As a corrections officer I could give back by helping these kids turn their lives around and build a future for themselves."
"It is shameful and baffling that the sheriff's department would terminate Andre for being gay," said Bear Atwood of the ACLU of Mississippi. "Andre's life is a perfect example of what a person can accomplish through hard work and education. As a juvenile corrections officer, he was a positive role model for kids who were falling through the cracks and had no one else they could relate to."
The lawsuit names the Forrest County Sheriff's Department, Chief Bolton, Sheriff Billy McGee and Staff Sergeant Brannon for violating his equal protection and due process rights guaranteed under the Fourteenth Amendment.
Cooley is represented by Joshua Block and Leslie Cooper at the ACLU Foundation, Bear Atwood at the ACLU of Mississippi and Lisa E. Cleary and Aron Fischer at the law firm of Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP.
The complaint for this case can be found at: www.aclu.org/lgbt-rights/cooley-v-forrest-county-sheriffs-department-complaint
A video on Cooley's case, as well as additional resources, can be found at: www.aclu.org/cooley