A five-woman, two-man jury ruled Friday that Citrus County Sheriff Mike Prendergast did not discriminate based on sex against a former sheriff’s deputy who blamed him for losing her law enforcement job.
The jury took only about 90 minutes to reach its verdict following a five-day long trial in Tampa’s federal U.S. District Court.
The lawsuit by former sheriff’s deputy Heather Cogar listed Prendergast, former Sheriff Jeff Dawsy as well as the plaintiff’s former boyfriend, former Citrus County Sheriff’s Deputy Bryan Hesse, as defendants.
U.S. District Court Judge James Moody oversaw the case.
Following the verdict, Prendergast forwarded a text to the Chronicle
“Equal opportunity is the cornerstone of the American dream,” he wrote. “I have never and will never discriminate against an employee based upon their race, ethnicity, religion, or gender. The facts speak loudly and clearly that I did not discriminate against former employee, Heather Cogar, who was terminated twice by my predecessor for egregious acts of misconduct.”
“I am thankful that the jury saw through the smokescreen painted by her attorneys and recognized this lawsuit for what it was, a disgraceful effort by a person who would not accept responsibility for her actions,” he continued. “As always, I remain deeply committed to our team and our community as we provide excellence in public safety to the citizens of our county.”
Following the verdict, Cogar told the Chronicle that Prendergast’s lawyers clouded the issue of sexual discrimination with “irrelevant testimony.”
“Mike Prendergast did not like me because I was a woman who fought back … and he’s not used to that,” she said. “Just because the jury did not agree I was an aggrieved employee … does not make the sheriff innocent and I will continue to seek justice.”
The case focused on the lawsuit of the twice-fired and twice-demoted Cogar. Her lawyers told the jury that former Sheriff Jeff Dawsy and current Sheriff Prendergast showed a long-time pattern of protecting male deputies. They didn’t show that favoritism when it came to female deputies.
Dawsy first fired Cogar in 2015 after a joy ride in which Cogar and a friend went driving during the early morning hours wearing face masks and following a deputy cruiser. A sheriff’s review board recommend she be reinstated, so Dawsy transferred her as a deputy to the agency’s judicial branch.
Four months later, deputies arrested Cogar after her then-boyfriend, former deputy Bryan Hesse, called 911 during a fight with Cogar. He told deputies after the call she hit him on the arm, while he was videotaping her yelling and throwing household items and his service pistol. He said she hit his arm while she grappled for the phone, but not that it was necessarily intentional.
That’s when Dawsy fired her a second time. When Prendergast became sheriff in 2016, his career review board recommended he rehire her. Instead, Prendergast gave her a job as a 911 dispatcher.
The lawsuit Cogar filed in 2018 says that pay as a dispatcher was about $1 an hour less than deputy pay, and Cogar was unable to participate in special detail security jobs that could provide an additional $3,000 to $5,000 a year, the lawsuit states.
Moody instructed the jury to consider whether Prendergast “subjected Cogar to an adverse employment action by placing her in a dispatch role.” And if he had, was her sex a motivating factor.
To compare Cogar’s treatment to that of a male deputy, Sheslow cited the case of Deputy Nick Norton.
In 2018, a drunken and shirtless Norton beat on the front and back door of a home demanding to be let inside. He identified himself as a sheriff’s deputy.
In that case, when deputies arrived and apprehended Norton, Sheslow told the jury that instead of arresting Norton, a school resource officer, they Baker Acted him for mental evaluation, and allowed him to return to work after a 14-day suspension. He was never arrested despite trying to fight with other deputies and damaging portions of the home’s outside fixtures.
But in closing arguments Brian Koji, the sheriff’s attorney, said that comparing the two cases was like comparing apples and oranges.
Koji said Cogar had gotten in trouble twice soon after being hired. In addition, Prendergast wasn’t even sheriff during Cogar’s initial two firings.
Instead of letting Dawsy’s firing stand, Prendergast gave her a third chance.
“No one in the agency had ever had two chances, I’m going to give her three,” Koji said of Prendergast’s decision to give her a dispatch job.
Cogar quit that job in the summer of 2019.
The case was not about Norton or Hesse, Koji told the jury.
“It’s not about any of those things,” he said.
Cogar was given three chances and her disciplines were based on “anything but being a female.”