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Former Devils Lake jail admin files federal lawsuit claiming gender discrimination

Denny Deegan, who was fired from her post as Lake Region Law Enforcement Center Administrator in the summer of 2014, still has no resolution to the discrimination complaint she filed with the state in September 2014. Paul Deegan, her husband, has been showing up at Ramsey County Commission meetings questioning the commission regarding the financially troubled jail. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

DEVILS LAKE, N.D.—A former Devils Lake jail administrator claims in a federal lawsuit she was fired because she was a woman and that board members threatened others with dismissal if they didn't oust her.

Denny Deegan is suing the Lake Region Law Enforcement Center, claiming she was wrongfully fired in August 2014 as the jail's operations director. It's been a year since the North Dakota Department of Labor and Human Rights ruled LEC leadership discriminated against Deegan because of her gender as they voted to dismiss her.

At the heart of the lawsuit is a claim that LEC Board member Ed Brown, a Ramsey County commissioner, said "we need a man to run this place" during an Aug. 20, 2014, meeting. Deegan was on approved sick leave during the meeting, but the board voted 5-3 to fire Deegan, citing "a huge help turnover," money and overtime issues, and poor performance.

Those statements were false, said Tanya Wieler, a former human resources consultant for the LEC. The Labor Department found Deegan was qualified and was performing her work in a satisfactory way.

State agents were "unable to hear Commissioner Brown make the alleged comment," but Wieler said she discussed the inappropriateness of the comment with Brown, other board members and LEC attorney Howard Swanson.

The federal lawsuit highlights these claims and alleges board members "sought to change the outcome (of previous votes to dismiss Deegan) by threatening to replace board members who would not vote to terminate (her)."

"As a result of the threats, one or more ... members did not attend the Aug. 20 meeting and were replaced by alternates who agreed to vote in favor of the plaintiff's termination," the complaint said.

Former Ramsey County Commissioner Bill Mertens was replaced by his commission with Brown because he refused to vote for Deegan's firing, the lawsuit claims.

The LEC hired Tom Rime to replace Deegan, who, according to her complaint, was the first and last woman to lead the LEC since it opened.

Court documents indicate mediation could be used to resolve the case, though previous attempts have failed, attorneys for Deegan previously told the Herald.

"I don't think it is likely at this point," Steven Andrew Smith, a Minneapolis attorney representing Deegan, said of the possibility that the case will be settled through mediation.

LEC Board members and Swanson previously have declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation. Swanson did not return a request for comment on this story.

The next court date a status conference set for Jan. 10.

The LEC, which serves Devils Lake and the counties of Ramsey, Benson, Towner, Eddy and Nelson, denies all allegations, saying it acted in good faith.

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers crime and education. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family raises registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as a city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

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