By Morgan Hughes
Wyoming Tribune Eagle
Via Wyoming News Exchange
CHEYENNE — A jury ruled Friday that while gender did play a part in a Wyoming Highway Patrol K9 handler's demotion in 2016, the Highway Patrol would have made the same decision regardless of gender.
Delsa Sanderson, who became the patrol's first female K9 handler in May 2015, was demoted and reassigned from her position in April 2016. Sanderson claimed she was reassigned because she was a woman. The Highway Patrol contended the reassignment was the result of Sanderson's pattern of communication issues and inability to work cohesively with the rest of the division she was assigned to.
In his closing statements Friday, Bruce Moats, Sanderson's attorney, referenced incidents where two male troopers in Sanderson's division had behaved inappropriately but were not reassigned, while Sanderson, behaving no worse, was. He stressed the lack of investigation by the patrol into alleged incidents where Sanderson had failed to appropriately communicate with team members or the public.
"They simply decided to take the word of male colleagues," instead of investigating further, he said.
He told the jury that the patrol couldn't keep its story straight and had presented conflicting events during the trial.
His main argument, and the bedrock of the case, rested in the notion that, regardless of how her colleagues behaved, Sanderson was always treated differently.
"She is seen as a female trooper, not just a trooper," Moats said. "The patrol is filled with top-notch people, but the agency is better than this."
Jesse Naiman, the Highway Patrol's attorney, delivered closing statements for the defense.
He stressed to the jury that the case was not about whether the jury feels Sanderson was treated harshly or fairly, but about whether Sanderson had proven her demotion was due to her gender.
"You might disagree with their decision; nonetheless, that alone is not pretext," he said.
He told the jury common sense indicates Sanderson was not demoted because of her gender, because the patrol hired another woman into the division after Sanderson, and that trooper is still in the division.
Naiman said Sanderson was repeatedly warned about her communication by superiors.
She was told, "Watch what you say, watch what you do," multiple times on multiple occasions by multiple people, he said.
The eight-person jury that heard the case was sent to deliberate around 2 p.m. and returned with a verdict at roughly 9 p.m. The jury ruled that Sanderson's gender did play a role in her demotion, but that the Highway Patrol would have made the same decision regardless of gender.
The jury awarded Sanderson costs and attorney's fees but no additional damages.
In an emailed statement, Sanderson said, "I am gratified that the jury recognized both the level of discrimination that I faced, as well as the failure of the Wyoming Highway Patrol's Executive Command Staff to handle the matter in an appropriate fashion."
She added proving discrimination in situations like hers is difficult, particularly when up against the state.
Moats said they have not yet decided if they plan to appeal the decision.