A federal judge erred when he threw out a jury’s verdict against former Jackson County Sheriff Mike Byrd for inflicting emotional distress on a female deputy, a high court has ruled.
In its ruling, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals said a federal court judge did not consider all of the evidence before he threw out the jury verdict that had awarded deputy Kristan Seibert $280,000 for emotional distress suffered in May 2012.
The ruling said the district judge focused only on “evidence of non-sexual harassment.”
“We are just happy that the 5th Circuit chose to listen to the voice of the people,” Seibert’s attorney Monte Tynes said Thursday. “Kristan is one of the greatest people I’ve ever met and I’m just glad she is getting justice. When a jury speaks with their verdict, it’s something special and shouldn’t be taken lightly.
“The jury is the ultimate decider.”
U.S. District Judge Keith Starrett threw out the jury’s verdict in December 2015. In his ruling, he said the jury had no evidence on which to base the verdict because they found Byrd not guilty of sexually harassing Seibert in May 2012.
Byrd was forced to resign in December 2013 because of state and federal charges that led him to plead guilty to intimidation of a witness and attempting to cover up the assault of a man who stole a patrol car.
In the federal trial, Seibert testified about incidents involving Byrd’s inappropriate and sexual comments and overtures.
Seibert filed suit in April 2014, two weeks after Byrd pleaded guilty to federal and state felony charges.
In the lawsuit, she said Byrd began making unwanted sexual advances toward her in May 2012, when she was promoted to a public affairs job. She said the advances continued until he resigned.
She said she had been in the public affairs job for two months when Byrd tried to influence a judge in a child-custody case involving Seibert’s daughter. She said Byrd met “behind closed doors” with the judge and then told Seibert she was “his baby.”
In addition, Seibert said, Byrd ordered meetings with her behind closed doors, during which he touched her inappropriately and asked her at one point to meet him at a hunting camp to have sex.
On another occasion, she said, Byrd stood so close to her she could smell his breath and told her, “You know you want to kiss me.”
In other instances, Seibert said, Byrd grabbed her buttocks, rubbed his hand up her leg and said at one point he wanted to “taste” her.
On another occasion, she said, Byrd told her he loved her and wanted her and gave her a gold necklace to show he was “serious” about her. Seibert turned the necklace over the Jackson County District Attorney’s Office.
Seibert said Byrd also ordered meetings with her behind closed doors, during which he would threaten to move her to another job if she continued to refuse his advances. Byrd told her she should be “loyal,” she said, and he threatened that if she left the department, “he would ruin her career and give her a bad recommendation.”
She said Byrd had also threatened her by way of other sheriff’s employees after he resigned.
Seibert testified before a grand jury in an investigation into Byrd on unrelated state charges. Afterward, she said former Sheriff’s Capt. Mick Sears sent her a text that said: “In life, there are winners and losers and you have to pick sides. If you pick the losing side, you die.”
Starrett said the text message from Sears could have been interpreted as a threat, but Seibert had provided no evidence at the civil trial to suggest Byrd had any involvement in the message.
“I think we have the greatest civil and criminal justice system in the world where actual citizens get to decide what is accepted and what is not accepted in society,” Tynes said. “The jury through their verdict ruled they did not think Byrd’s conduct was appropriate and stood up and said, ‘We are not going to accept behavior like this in our society.’”
Jackson County had asked the 5th Circuit to reconsider its reversal, but the the higher court upheld its action. Another appeal could be filed with the U.S. Supreme Court within 90 days.