Racism lawsuit will proceed against “good ole’ boy” Christian Handley
The fired sergeant is accused of doling out racist abuse for a decade. Handley argued the allegations were too old to proceed, but an amended complaint sheds light on new, ‘timely’ details.
A federal court judge has denied a motion to dismiss in a civil rights lawsuit being brought against a former Albany County Sheriff’s sergeant.
Christian Handley has been accused of engaging in a “years-long racist tirade” that allegedly forced former Corporal Jamin Johnson to resign. At the time, Johnson was the agency’s only Black employee.
Johnson has brought his allegations in a federal civil rights suit filed in the U.S. District Court of Wyoming. Johnson’s original filing alleged that Handley frequently and flagrantly used the n-word and other slurs to refer to Black people in the community, arrestees, university students and Johnson himself.
“(Handley) relentlessly demeaned Mr. Johnson with racial slurs and innuendos, even once in front of Mr. Johnson’s wife and children,” the lawsuit alleges. “The total of Mr. Handley’s racism, bigotry, and discrimination in the workplace almost defies belief.”
Once Handley became Johnson’s supervisor, Johnson alleges that Handley orchestrated a “sham disciplinary process” and persuaded then-Sheriff Dave O’Malley to give Johnson an ultimatum: leave the office, or accept a demotion that would keep him under Handley’s direct supervision.
“Mr. Johnson took the only tenable option and resigned,” the lawsuit states. “It was abundantly clear that continuing to work for Mr. Handley would have meant enduring more racism, more bigotry, and more discrimination, none of which was tolerable.”
In a rebuttal last month, Handley argued that the statute of limitations was up for the specific civil rights claims Johnson was bringing — as most of the specific incidents were alleged to have occurred more than four years ago.
But Johnson has submitted an amended complaint, expanding on the allegations, including more recent allegations, and alleging that Handley was given preferential treatment because of his inclusion in the “good ole’ boys” club.
Johnson’s lawsuit is completely separate from another federal lawsuit being brought against Derek Colling, another former Albany County Sheriff’s deputy who served under Sheriff O’Malley.
Good ole’ boys
The “good ole’ boys” club is referred to frequently and informally by members of the Laramie community to describe a network of old-timers and their relatives with deep roots in the community — who use those roots to avoid scrutiny or punishment for wrongdoing.
As an informal concept, the group’s membership will vary depending on who is discussing the club, and to what end it’s being discussed. And it’s certainly not a term that most would sincerely use to self-identify.
But Johnson’s recent filing attempts to define the “good ole’ boys” club — and place Handley squarely within it.
“It was widespread knowledge among ACSO employees that Mr. Handley was part of ACSO’s ‘good ole’ boy’ network and enjoyed the patronage of, and a special relationship with, the sheriff,” Johnson’s amended complaint alleges. “A ‘good ole’ boy’ network refers to an informal system where white men of a similar background use their influence for their mutual benefit (and often to the detriment of those who are not part of the ‘good ole’ boy’ network).”
Johnson alleges this network was alive and well in the sheriff’s office under O’Malley.
“In the context of the ACSO, ‘good ole’ boy’ members such as Handley were groomed by the Sheriff — who was himself part of the ‘good ole’ boy’ network — for promotion and leadership, were not held to the same standards as other employees and had outsize influence over the Sheriff by virtue of their ‘good ole’ boy’ status,” the complaint alleges.
The lawsuit further alleges that because of this special relationship with the sheriff — and because Johnson is a Black man — Handley was able to persuade O’Malley to force Johnson out of the agency. The lawsuit also alleges that the presence of the ‘good ole’ boys’ club had a silencing effect on Johnson’s other colleagues.
“Many ACSO employees feared complaining about or addressing Handley’s behavior, because they feared retaliation,” the complaint alleges. “Handley was able to engage in a pattern of egregious harassment, discrimination, and other misconduct with impunity because of his status as a ‘good ole’ boy’ and his personal relationship and influence with the sheriff.”
If Handley was indeed a member of the ‘good ole’ boys’ club, then he has lost some of the membership privileges. O’Malley’s successor fired him shortly after taking office and the Wyoming Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission decertified him later the same year for “harassment and discriminatory behavior.”
Decertification means Handley is forbidden from working in law enforcement anywhere in the state of Wyoming. It is likely he will never work in law enforcement again, because other states typically honor decertifications issued elsewhere.
Timely allegations and O’Malley’s ultimatum
In his amended complaint, Johnson also fleshed out the alleged “sham disciplinary process” that forced him out of the sheriff’s office.
Handley had claimed in his motion to dismiss that most of the racist incidents alleged in the original complaint were alleged to have occurred more than four years ago — in other words, beyond the statute of limitations. Then-Sheriff Dave O’Malley handing Johnson an ultimatum was the only event described that had happened in the past four years — and Handley argued that one incident alone cannot prove a hostile workplace environment.
So in Johnson’s updated, amended complaint, he provides more detail on that event, alleging that it was both more aggressive and more clearly targeted than the original lawsuit let on.
He first notes that no other supervisor had ever written him up for any policy violation and that he had “received overwhelmingly positive performance evaluations,” — including from O’Malley, for “performing live-saving acts in dangerous situations.”
“It is without question that Mr. Johnson was a dedicated and qualified officer,” the amended complaint states. “But once Mr. Handley became patrol sergeant, the hostile work environment that had included a steady barrage of dehumanizing comments and race-based harassment transformed into a sham disciplinary process designed to target Mr. Johnson and force him out of the ACSO.”
Just weeks after being promoted to a supervisory position over Johnson, Handley started initiating disciplinary actions against his new subordinate, allegedly using notes he had taken about Johnson when they were both corporals.
Johnson was allowed to submit a written rebuttal to Handley’s accusations under the sheriff’s office’s policies, but when Johnson consulted a colleague about writing that rebuttal, Handley allegedly wrote up Johnson again for “insubordination to the highest level.”
“Of course, consulting a colleague and drafting a formal rebuttal — as any reasonable employee would do, particularly when they had long suffered under Mr. Handley’s abhorrent racism — should not have resulted in discipline,” the amended complaint states. “It became clear to Mr. Johnson that he was being targeted by Mr. Handley on the basis of race.”
This was followed by a “rapid succession” of other disciplinary actions, according to the complaint.
“Mr. Handley’s write-ups accused Mr. Johnson of lying, creating elaborate stories to cover up his mistakes, and threatening his coworkers, to name just a few of the apparent ‘issues’ in Mr. Johnson’s behavior,” the complaint states.
The first disciplinary action, the complaint adds, came just one month after Handley allegedly compared Black women to dogs and shouted “mother fucking n*****!” at Johnson and his family — meaning those incidents just barely fall outside of the four-year statute of limitations Handley raised, and they would have directly preceded the disciplinary actions that fell within the statute of limitations.
The amended complaint also describes tense, angry phone calls between Handley and Johnson as the latter was on vacation. The phone calls involved Handley arranging a meeting between Johnson and O’Malley to go over the disciplinary actions.
At one point, Johnson asked Handley, “Why do you keep coming after me at every turn?”
“Mr. Handley became enraged, told Mr. Johnson ‘never mind, fuck it, get your ass in here now’ and ordered Mr. Johnson to come that evening to receive a copy of the Second Disciplinary Action, despite the fact that he was on vacation,” the complaint alleges.
Handley then filed another disciplinary action, alleging that Johnson’s attitude during the phone call was “completely unacceptable” and “threatening in nature.”
These disciplinary actions led to O’Malley’s ultimatum, delivered in person and via a letter.
“Based on his sham disciplinary actions, and during his discussions with Sheriff O’Malley about them, Mr. Handley persuaded Sheriff O’Malley to issue an ultimatum to Mr. Johnson: he could accept a five-day suspension and demotion to Patrol Deputy or leave the ACSO,” the amended complaint states. “At the time, Mr. Johnson was not only the sole Black employee at the ACSO, but was also the only Black employee of Albany County. During Mr. Johnson’s career with ACSO, no deputy had ever received more than a one-day suspension for any disciplinary violation.”
Johnson alleges he was not given the opportunity to present his version of the story.
“Sheriff O’Malley stated that ‘I already know what happened,’” the complaint alleges. “At no time during the meeting and nowhere in the letter is it even mentioned that Mr. Handley had been tormenting Mr. Johnson for years, and that the entire disciplinary process was suffused with and motivated by Mr. Handley’s racism.”
The complaint alleges no investigation was performed into Handley’s allegations about Johnson’s conduct.
The court found these new details compelling enough to reject Handley’s motion to dismiss, based as it was on the allegations occurring too far in the past.
New details from the internal investigation
There was later an investigation into Handley’s behavior — but not until after O’Malley resigned. Aaron Appelhans was appointed as his replacement, and soon after, the new sheriff launched an internal investigation of Handley, eventually firing the sergeant in March 2021.
“The current sheriff’s office right now, under my administration, doesn’t condone any of that behavior,” Appelhans told the Laramie Reporter in January. “We handle it swiftly, as we’ve done with Christian Handley.”
Johnson’s amended complaint expands on the scope and findings of that investigation.
“There is copious evidence of Mr. Handley’s deep-seated racial animus toward Black Americans, such as Johnson,” the complaint alleges. “Many ACSO employees are personally familiar with Handley’s racism and witnessed Handley’s near-daily use of racial epithets (including those directed at Johnson). Handley would refer to inmates as ‘n******,’ and targeted Black citizens in public. Handley, however, did not limit his discrimination to Black persons. He also exhibited discriminatory animus toward Hispanic individuals, and based on gender, sexual orientation, and age.”
Johnson’s amended complaint then details Handley’s alleged protected status as a member of the “good ole’ boys” club, as detailed above.