Protecting Lady Bird

How many Secret Service agents does it take to protect a former First Lady who is in her 90’s?

 A senior Secret Service official has lost his discrimination complaint filed against the agency in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. (Sykes v.Napolitano, D.D.C., C.A. No. 07-42(RMC), 5/11/10) The facts are taken from a decision issued by Judge Rosemary Collyer. 

Twenty years into his career with the Secret Service, Sykes was promoted to GS-15 Special Agent in Charge (SAIC) responsible for heading the Johnson Protective Division (JPD). At the time his only charge was the Lady Bird Johnson, widow of the former President, who was in her nineties when Sykes won this assignment.  

In this position Sykes supervised one assistant SAIC and nine to eighteen Special Agents and special officers. His office encompassed three different geographic locations—the field office in Austin, Mrs. Johnson’s personal residence, and the Johnson ranch. Sykes reported to the Deputy Assistant Director of the Office of Protective Operations.  

Sykes held the SAC job from April 2003 until September 2005 when he was involuntarily reassigned to be Assistant Special Agent in Charge at the agency’s Rowley Training Center. Sykes complains that the agency took this adverse employment action due to his race, African American.  

The agency explained its reasons for Sykes’ reassignment. It cited the 2004 routine inspection of the JPD office. The result was an overall evaluation of “Fair,” with the office receiving a “Recommendation,” the lowest rating possible. Under Sykes’ predecessor, the JPD had been rated “Very Good” two years previously. The inspection concluded the JPD SAIC [Sykes] and ASAIC …are not sufficiently engaged in the daily activities of the detail…and that there was a ‘clear indication of sick leave abuse.'”(Opinion p. 4) The inspection report recommended that Sykes and his assistant “urgently re-evaluate and drastically improve upon their degree of personal participation in protective movements…and direct supervision of division employees.” (pp. 4-5)  

The agency also cited several incidents involving sexual harassment and other problems among the JPD team indicating that Sykes was not an effective manager of the JPD. Following the bad inspection report and the several incidents indicating low morale, a fact-finding team was sent in to interview the JPD employees. The upshot was the decision by the agency to reassign Sykes at the same pay and grade with full compensation of his relocation expenses from Texas to Maryland. In fact, the agency explained, Sykes was picked for the Training Center ASAIC position over two other GS-15s who had bid on the job.   

The agency also pointed out in its defense that in his new position Sykes supervises four GS-14s and is second level supervisor of up to 24 employees.  

The district court has now ruled in favor of the Secret Service. The court expressed his admiration for Sykes’s clearly distinguished career with the agency; nevertheless it concludes that Sykes failed to rebut the agency’s legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for his reassignment.  

The court disagreed with Sykes’ characterization of his reassignment as an adverse employment action: “A lateral transfer—even to another state—that is unaccompanied by a diminution in pay, benefits, or significant responsibilities will not generally rise to the level of an adverse employment action.”  Further, “Mr. Sykes’s subjective belief that he cannot further succeed is insufficient to demonstrate that the reassignment was an adverse action when the evidence indicates otherwise.” (pp. 15, 18)  

Since Sykes failed to show that race played any role in his reassignment or that the agency’s explanation for its action was a pretext for discrimination, the court concludes that there was no discrimination against him.

Sykes v. Napolitano 07-42

About the Author

Susan McGuire Smith spent most of her federal legal career with NASA, serving as Chief Counsel at Marshall Space Flight Center for 14 years. Her expertise is in government contracts, ethics, and personnel law.