Suit accuses Cabell sheriff of ridding department of women via bogus tests

Sheriff Tom McComas
Sheriff Tom McComas

By Lawrence J. Smith

HUNTINGTON - Cabell County’s top cop is accused of deliberately purging women from the ranks of his department since taking office five years ago.


Sheriff Tom McComas is named as a co-defendant in a sex discrimination lawsuit brought by Patrice Diane Lambert. In her complaint filed Aug. 4 in U.S. District Court, Lambert, 51, and a Huntington resident, alleges since he became sheriff in 2009 McComas has made the law enforcement side of CCSD an all-boys club by applying standards differently for them than to herself, and female home confinement officers.

Lambert goes so far as to accuse Chief Deputy Doug Ferguson, also named as a co-defendant in the suit, of fabricating documents in the course of challenging her termination from CCSD two years ago

According to her complaint, Lambert was one of three women employed by CCSD in 2008 with law enforcement powers. At the time, Cindy “Shellie” Stiltner, and a woman only identified at the initials T.S. worked as home confinement officers.

In that year’s general election, McComas, a Democrat, defeated then Cabell County Commissioner Scott Bias, a Republican, to succeed Kim Wolfe as sheriff, who was barred, by law, from seeking a third successive term.

Shortly after taking office, McComas instituted a policy requiring anyone with CCSD authorized to carry a firearm to pass a bi-annual qualification test. However, Lambert alleges the for almost two years into McComas’ administration the tests were haphazardly administered, and only rigorously enforced against her, and Stiltner after T.S. resigned in November 2009 for unspecified reasons.

In her suit, Lambert unequivocally states McComas, and Ferguson, whose duties as chief deputy include being the lead firearms instructor, “encouraged males to cheat to pass the course, permitted males more favorable opportunities and a greater number of attempts to pass the course and failed to keep accurate records to reflect that anyone has passed the course twice a year, including the Sheriff himself.”

Also, Lambert avers that Oscar Adkins, the former home confinement director, was never tested from the time the policy was implemented through the date he retired in 2012.

Furthermore, Lambert claims she, and Stiltner have been the only two law enforcement officers to be terminated from CCSD under McComas’ administration for failing to pass the qualification test. Records show Stiltner was fired on July 30, 2011 followed by Lambert just over a year later.

At the time of her termination, Lambert was a 29-year Department veteran with the rank of lieutenant, and commander of its holding facility.

As evidence of McComas’ bias against women law enforcement officers, Lambert makes reference to an undated deposition Commissioner Bob Bailey gave in Stiltner’s pending sex discrimination suit against McComas, and the Commission. When questioned on an unspecified date in 2011 why he didn’t hire more female deputies to aid Lambert in searching female suspects, Bailey said “His reply to me was that he didn’t want any women in uniform around him.”

Following her termination, Lambert appealed it to the county Deputy Sheriff’s Civil Service Commission. In February 2013, the commission not only overturned Lambert’s termination, but also ruled that McComas’ “firearms regulations test must comply with West Virginia [law].”

Two months later after the state Supreme Court refused to hear a writ of mandamus Lambert filed seeking an order compelling McComas to rehire here, Cabell Circuit Judge Jane Husted remanded his appeal of the commission’s decision back to them after finding he failed to conduct a predisciplinary hearing.

Last August when the commission was scheduled to again hear her appeal, Lambert alleges Ferguson fabricated evidence. Specifically, she maintains Ferguson backdated three memos, including one dated Sept. 14, 2009,”that did not previously exist” and “related to [her] firearms qualifications that did not occur.”

“The creation of the memos was fraudulent and an attempted cover-up for the dissociation that had occurred,” Lambert says her suit.

According to its minutes, the commission in December again overturned Lambert’s termination. McComas’ failure to rehire her prompted the commission again to consider the matter which scheduled a special meeting for Aug. 5.

However, Lambert withdrew the appeal the same day she filed her discrimination suit. It states that last month she received a right to sue letter from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

As a result of McComas’ and Ferguson’s actions, Lambert alleges she’s suffered, among other things “emotional distress, humiliation and mental anguish.” In addition to the main one for violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, her suit makes two addition claims for unlawful discrimination, and retaliation under state law.

Along with McComas, and Ferguson, the Commission is named as a co-defendant in the suit. In West Virginia, county commissions, and the sheriffs are co-employers of deputy sheriffs.

In her suit, Lambert seeks either reinstatement to CCSD or unmitigated front pay, attorneys fees and court costs. She is represented by Charleston attorneys Maria W. Hughes, and Mark Goldner.

The case is assigned to Judge Robert C. “Chuck” Chambers.

U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, case number 3: 14-cv-24354

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