Former SFPD officer Juanita Stockwell, shown around 1991, is a lead plaintiff in a case against the San Francisco Police Department alleging older officers were unfairly passed over for promotion despite having qualified and done the work entailed in the positions. (Courtesy photo)

Retired officers seek end to decade-old age discrimination case

Retired officer Juanita Stockwell was 60 when she and her colleagues first sued the San Francisco Police Department for allegedly passing over older cops for promotions in 2008.

Now nearing 72, she is among more than two dozen current and former officers who are still waiting for a resolution in the age discrimination suit from more than a decade ago.

With the coronavirus pandemic threatening to delay many trials for the foreseeable future, Stockwell is hoping their case can be settled outside of court.

“If this thing keeps getting delayed, and delayed and delayed, where does that leave us?” Stockwell said. “These people are elderly, they are senior citizens. Let’s get this thing done.”

The case, which began as a class-action lawsuit, has dragged on for years through two appeals, an aborted settlement agreement and a change in venues from federal to state court.

A spokesperson for the City Attorney’s Office declined to comment on their legal strategy regarding settlements.

At issue was whether the SFPD discriminated against officers like Stockwell when it began filling investigative positions with cops who had tested to become sergeants, rather than those who sought to be inspectors, in 2007.

The prospective sergeants, who tested in 2006, tended to be younger and less experienced than the officers who tested to become inspectors in 1998, according to the lawsuit.

Court records show the department made the switch to streamline the promotions process under former Chief Heather Fong.

Traditionally, sergeants had supervised officers in the field while inspectors performed the investigative work. The new sergeants exam was meant to test the skills of officers for both the sergeant position as well as the assistant inspector role.

But the change made some officers who had been waiting for promotion on the inspectors list since 1998 feel passed over.

In court records, attorneys for The City have argued that prospective inspectors were not discriminated against and could have qualified for promotion by taking the sergeant’s test.

‘Too old?’

Among the officers on the inspector’s list were cops with years of investigative experience but no additional pay.

Stockwell joined the department in 1980 and worked as a “school car” patrolling schools in the Sunset starting in 1986.

“I handled everything that happened at a school in my district,” Stockwell said. “I got to know all of the students.”

Her connections to students in the Asian community led to a three-year period investigating cases on the Gang Task Force between 1996 and 1999, Stockwell said.

In 1998, she tested for the inspector position but sat on the list for more than a decade without promotion.

“We were doing the exact same work as inspectors,” Stockwell said. “Why is it that once we were up for promotion, we became too old?”

Stockwell ended up working as a station keeper at Richmond and Taraval stations until her retirement in 2012.

Michael Lewis, 71, is another officer who feels he was wrongly passed over for a promotion.

Lewis, a 32-year veteran, was assigned to the Investigations Bureau from around 1988 until his retirement in 2009.

He was the first Black officer to be certified as a gang expert in San Francisco and even helped investigate gang murders, according to the 2008 lawsuit.

Unlike a patrol officer who is tasked with responding to calls for service, Lewis investigated crimes after the fact with the Gang Task Force and Tactical Investigations Unit.

“We went all over The City, all over the Bay Area to find suspects who had fled to grandma’s house,” Lewis said.

He gathered evidence to solve crimes, but was paid as an officer instead of an inspector.

“I only ever wanted to be an inspector,” Lewis said.

‘Forced’ into a deal

Stockwell and Lewis were among the 39 plaintiffs named in the initial lawsuit seeking to represent a class of officers who were older than 40 and denied promotional opportunities.

But a federal judge denied their attempts to obtain class standing for various reasons on three occasions, including a 2011 ruling that was later reversed by an appeals court.

The case was transferred to San Francisco Superior Court in December 2015 after the officers agreed to dismiss all class claims.

In May 2018, attorneys reached a proposed settlement agreement of $400,000 to end the litigation, but the deal fell apart.

While there were 29 officers still involved in the case, the agreement would leave just $150,000 to distribute between them after attorneys fees.

“It was an outrageous insult,” said Lewis, who estimated that the settlement would have amounted to $3,000 a person.

“All I want is to be fairly treated,” he added.

Stockwell said she did not agree with the settlement from the beginning and accused her attorneys of forcing the deal.

“We were looking forward to going to court,” Stockwell said. “Then all of a sudden we get forced into this settlement conference that we didn’t agree to go into.”

When a judge entered judgment solidifying the agreement in November 2018, Stockwell and 11 other plaintiffs appealed through a new attorney.

An appeals court reversed the judgment in May 2020 and found that the judge did not properly ask the officers whether they understood or agreed to the settlement.

The deal was undone.

John Cote, the City Attorney’s Office spokesperson, said the office negotiated the settlement in good faith. The agreement would not have included an admission of liability for The City.

“Some plaintiffs in this case refused to proceed with the negotiated settlement,” Cote said. “They appealed an order enforcing the settlement, drawing out the case even further. That was their choice.”

Stockwell and Lewis accused The City of intentionally delaying the litigation. Both would prefer a settlement over a trial.

“I’m not frightened by a trial,” Lewis said. “I do know that the clock is ticking for all the people involved in this.”

The case is due back in court Friday for a case management conference.

mbarba@sfexaminer.com

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