Ithaca, N.Y. — Judges often hem and haw in their written rulings, adopting the “on the one hand … on the other hand” approach so associated with the bench.

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But Judge Gary Sharpe does essentially none of that in a ruling released last week, siding almost completely with the city of Ithaca in its attempt to dismiss a lawsuit from a former police officer seeking $10.5 million in damages.

Sgt. Douglas Wright, who is white, filed a federal lawsuit in 2012 against Ithaca claiming that he was discriminated against on the basis of his race. Wright pointed to the promotion of Lt. Marlon Byrd, who is black, as evidence of this discrimination.

But Judge Sharpe dismissed Wright’s claims — almost unequivocally. Heand does little, if anything, to acknowledge the validity for the former sergeant’s arguments.

“The court finds that Wright has offered nothing more than mere innuendo that his race must have played a role in this particular promotion decision,” Sharpe says.

(Wright made over $100,000 in 2011 and was one of the highest paid Ithaca police officers, according to SeeThroughNY.net.)

Here are four other things that jumped out to us about Sharpe’s ruling:

1 — The mysterious head nod

One of Wright’s claims was that a superior officer in IPD told him that Byrd’s promotion was decided “across the street, and he nodded his head towards . . . City Hall.”

Sharpe finds this unconvincing evidence of racial discrimination.

“Even if this disputed fact were resolved in Wright’s favor, and the statement was, in fact, made, Wright relies purely on speculation and innuendo in arguing that this comment somehow meant Wright would be passed over because of his race,” the statement says.

“The comment is race neutral on its face, and Wright offers no additional facts about its context from which a reasonable juror could conclude that (the superior officer) was invoking race.”

2 — Statute of limitations

Wright’s claim was filed too late, beyond the required statute of limitations, according to Judge Sharpe.

“His claim pursuant to the (Ithaca Municipal Code) are untimely and thus dismissed,” Sharpe says.

3 — Wright doesn’t dispute that Byrd was more qualified

Former Police Chief Ed Vallely noted that Lt. Byrd d “had more recent experience supervising officers on the line, [and] had shown leadership and ambition in pursuing both a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in police science and attending the FBI
Academy,” according to court records.

Judge Sharpe notes that Wright doesn’t actually appear to contest this.

“Wright does not appear to dispute these facts, nor does he directly challenge Byrd’s underlying qualifications for the position,” Sharpe says.

“The court finds that defendants’ stated reasons thus constitute a legitimate basis for the promotion decision.”

4 — No evidence for Wright’s claims

The strangest part of Judge Sharpe’s ruling might be when he simply says that he doesn’t understand Sgt. Wright’s case.

“Wright merely concludes that this constituted discriminatory treatment, and offers nothing that would support a determination that the earlier incident was race motivated, other than the mere fact that an African-American was chosen for a promotion instead of Wright, a Caucasian,” Sharpe says.


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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.