A LONG GESTATION

A FORMER SHERIDAN COP, FIRED WHEN SHE BECAME PREGNANT, FINALLY SETTLES A LAWSUIT.

The birthing process for Sue Ratcliff lasted 25 months. Laid off from her job as a Sheridan police officer after becoming pregnant in late 1991, Ratcliff sued the little southern suburb, citing sex discrimination and failure to follow the outline of the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act. The waiting ended just two weeks ago when Sheridan delivered to Ratcliff a healthy, tax-free check for $23,240.

The money came as a big relief to Ratcliff even though, as part of the settlement, she agreed to resign from the police department. In fact, it appears as if she got out in the nick of time. Sheridan, which must slash 30 percent of its city staff due to budget problems, already has bid adieu to its police chief, city administrator and public works chief. Sixteen more layoffs--five of which are to come from within the police department--re expected by February 15.

December 10, 1991, had been a red-letter day for Ratcliff and her husband, Tim, a corporal with the Littleton Police Department. That was the day they learned that Sue was pregnant. It was also the day that Ratcliff's good relations with her superiors in Sheridan came to an end ("Pregnant Pause," February 26, 1992).

Ratcliff, who had suffered a miscarriage a year earlier, didn't want to chance losing the baby and so asked to be relieved from patrolling the streets. She wanted a light-duty assignment--which generally means desk work--for the length of her pregnancy. But then-Chief Jack VanArsdol, who had in the past granted light-duty assignments to officers recovering from surgery or injuries, balked at granting Ratcliff's request.

On Christmas Eve Ratcliff was asked to either accept a civilian position (at far less pay than she made as an officer) or resign. She refused. Less than a week later she was told that she was being placed on maternity leave. She would be given all her available sick time, vacation time and holiday pay, but when that ran out, her leave would be without pay--and without medical benefits.

Ratcliff's grievances to the city were blithely dismissed. When she wrote to then-city administrator Thomas Palmer, citing the cases of two male officers who'd been placed in the detective division following off-duty injuries, he said he found no reason to think she'd been discriminated against. Instead, he wrote in his letter to her dated January 16, 1992, that the problem lay with her. "I think you should have reviewed with your supervisors and chief the possibility of your pregnancy...," he wrote.

The Colorado Civil Rights Division found no probable cause for discrimination, even though Ratcliff and her attorney argued that Sheridan violated federal law requiring employers to treat pregnant women the same way they do medically disabled or injured employees. The ruling came down on August 29, 1992, ten days after Ratcliff gave birth to her daughter, Alexandra.

Ratcliff appealed that ruling and lost it as well, getting the word about the same time as she prepared to don her uniform and go back to work.

"When I lost the civil-rights appeal," she says, "I bawled my head off. I was fighting for the principle of the thing. To go through years of shit over something that's already been fought in the Seventies is awful."
The next step was a civil suit, and the Fraternal Order of Police, which had funded her fight through the appeal, agreed to help fight the case in federal court.

The case was still dragging on when, on Election Day 1993, the City of Sheridan was dealt a tough blow--a giant Pace store, which provided sales tax revenue equaling one-third of the city's $3.4 million budget--announced it would close in December. That gave city administrators six weeks to retool their 1994 budget.

The city council decided to cut from the top first. In late December the jobs of police chief, fire chief, city administrator and public works director were eliminated, and former fire chief Mark Wallace was appointed to a new position of public safety director, which incorporated all four jobs. Wallace has to lay off sixteen more people by February 15.

When Ratcliff heard the police chief was leaving, she thought the city might be ripe for negotiation. She was right. The city's attorneys earlier had proved immovable on the question of a settlement, but they now agreed to Ratcliff's offer, granting to her what amounted to back pay without admitting liability. Wallace and mayor pro-tem Eileen Marple say, however, that the city's tight financial situation was not a factor in the settlement.

Of the suit, Marple says only that "it's something that happens in every city, and we're not immune to it." In that, she's apparently right. A Humble, Texas, police officer is currently battling her department after being laid off when she became pregnant.

December 31 was Ratcliff's last day as a Sheridan police officer. She had the settlement check in her hand January 10. Her fight is over. She's preparing for a big celebratory dinner with thirty or so "true-blue" friends. A framed copy of her settlement check now sits in the kitchen.

"Gee whiz," she reflects with a sigh. "All this because I decided to have a baby. Other than having a child, this is the hardest thing I've ever been through."

 
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