A federal judge on Friday, March 31 ruled in favor of Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay and his office by dismissing a lawsuit filed by a former high-ranking officer who claimed she was fired because of her sexual orientation.

Former sheriff’s captain Penny Phelps sued the sheriff, the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office and several MCSO employees after she was fired in 2019 for “using her authority as a high-ranking officer to direct a subordinate to act like a white supremacist and harass a suspect whom she knew was African-American to such a degree that he would file a citizen’s complaint,” states Judge Jose Martinez’s March 31 ruling granting summary judgment in favor of Ramsay, the sheriff’s office and all other defendants in the suit filed by Phelps.

The case stems from the November 2017 stabbing on Stock Island that became known locally as the “tree house murder.” A woman who lived in a stilt home on Stock Island was attacked by two men who slashed her throat, although she survived. A third man who rushed up the steps to help the victim was stabbed to death, and the suspects fled the scene.

During the investigation, in trying to confirm the prime suspect’s identity, then-Capt. Penny Phelps, who at the time was in charge of the sheriff’s office Major Crimes Division and the treehouse murder case, directed a subordinate officer “to act like a neo-Nazi, white supremacist and harass a known African American suspect in connection with a high-profile murder investigation,” Judge Martinez writes in his ruling.

Phelps’ direction to the officer was recorded on audio.

In his 30-page ruling, Judge Martinez writes, “There is no dispute of material fact on the record as to (Sheriff) Ramsay’s reason for Plaintiffs termination….Her conduct led to an internal affairs investigation where both Colonel Lou Caputo and Major Chad Scibilia recommended termination…. Additionally, several community organizations reached out directly to (Sheriff) Ramsay regarding the allegations against Plaintiff. The President of the South Florida Police Benevolent Association expressed his opinion that Plaintiff should be removed from ‘oversight in any capacity, including training.’ Leadership Monroe County revoked Plaintiff’s invitation to present at their upcoming session and the president of the College of the Florida Keys advised Ramsay that he revoked Plaintiffs adjunct teaching privileges and banished her from teaching at the College campus. On this record, therefore, this Court finds that Defendants proffered a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the (termination.”

Further, Judge Martinez writes, “Plaintiff has not put forth a single shred of evidence tending to show her termination had anything to do with her gender or sexual orientation. In fact, despite long standing knowledge  that Plaintiff is a homosexual woman, (Sheriff) Ramsay promoted her several times, giving her a great deal of influence and responsibility in a high ranking, public facing position. What’s more, Ramsay replaced the plaintiff with a homosexual female officer. Plaintiff does not dispute this fact, but instead attempts to explain it away with the self-serving argument that, ‘Defendant intentionally replaced her with a] homosexual female to avoid liability for sex and/or sexual orientation discrimination.’” 

In granting a summary judgment and dismissing the case against Ramsay and the sheriff’s office, Martinez also dismissed the similar lawsuit against Key West-based attorney Cara Higgins, who represented an alleged accomplice in the crime, and helped bring Phelps’ racially charged comments to light in the media. The case was covered by the New York Times, Washington Post and other media outlets.

Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. An award-winning writer, reporter and columnist, she's been stringing words together in Key West since 1998. "Local news is crucial," she says. "It informs and connects a community. It prompts conversation. It gets people involved, holds people accountable. The Keys Weekly takes its responsibility seriously. Our owners are raising families in Key West & Marathon. Our writers live in the communities we cover - Key West, Marathon & the Upper Keys. We respect our readers. We question our leaders. We believe in the Florida Keys community. And we like to have a good time." Mandy's married to a saintly — and handy — fishing captain, and can't imagine living anywhere else.