RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The Maryland attorney general’s office on Tuesday asked a federal appeals court to dismiss claims made against the state in a racial discrimination case brought by a former police chief and two other black officers from a small city on Maryland’s eastern shore.
Former Pocomoke City police Officer Franklin Savage, former Chief Kelvin Sewell and Lt. Lynell Green allege that Pocomoke City government, the state and the county prosecutor created a hostile work environment based on race.
Savage alleges in the lawsuit that former Worcester County State’s Attorney Beau Oglesby repeatedly read “the n-word” and variations of the word while reading from a letter that was to be used as evidence in a case he was prosecuting.
Savage said that, after he complained, Oglesby retaliated against him and he was eventually fired.
Former police Chief Kelvin Sewell — the first black police chief in Pocomoke City — claims he was fired after he refused to fire Savage and Green, who had also complained about racial discrimination. Green, who alleges that he faced retaliation for supporting Savage, eventually resigned from the force.
Sewell’s firing in 2015 stoked tensions in Pocomoke City, a racially mixed city of about 4,000. City officials denied the allegations of racial discrimination made by the officers.
During arguments before the 4th U.S. Circuit Court in Richmond, Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Katz argued that a U.S. District Court judge erred in refusing to dismiss the lawsuit’s claims against the state.
She said the basis for the discrimination claim was the prosecutorial decision made by Oglesby, which is protected by prosecutorial immunity. She also argued that the retaliation claim should have been dismissed because the state was not Savage’s direct employer.
Katz said Oglesby’s reading of the letter came during a trial preparation meeting and was conduct protected by the immunity given to prosecutors while they are performing the duties of their jobs.
Katz said Oglesby was not directing the language in the letter at anyone. She said that while reading the letter, Oglesby asked if the language offended anyone and said anyone who was offended was free to leave the meeting.
Savage’s lawyer, Dennis Corkery, of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee, told the court that as Oglesby read the letter he placed “unnecessary emphasis” on the N-word to humiliate Savage.
Lawyers for the officers asked the court to uphold the ruling allowing claims against the state to move forward and also asked the court to reverse a ruling granting immunity to the Worcester County state’s attorney.
The three-judge panel did not indicate when it would rule.
Sewell and Green were both indicted in 2016 on charges alleging they covered up a hit-and-run accident in 2014 to help a friend.
Sewell was convicted of misconduct in office and sentenced to probation. Green was convicted of conspiracy to commit misconduct in office and was sentenced to serve probation before judgment, meaning the misdemeanor charge could be expunged from his record if he successfully completes probation.
Both men alleged in pre-trial motions that the charges against them were brought in retaliation for their complaints of racial discrimination.