Harris County settles with deputy in beard lawsuit

Deputy Amon Simon was awared on Tuesday $400,000 from a settlement with Harris County. Simon filed a discrimination lawsuit against the county after the sheriff's office penalized him for not following the county's facial hair policy despite proving he had a medical condition preventing him from close shaving.

May 12, 2010 10:33:45 AM PDT
There will be $400,000 of your tax dollars used to settle a lawsuit over shaving a beard. A Harris County Sheriff's Office deputy sued, claiming the rules about shaving were unfair.

In 2008, Deputy Amon Simon filed a civil rights lawsuit against Harris County. Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said the county decided to settle with Simon because it was cheaper than going to trial.

"You always have to weigh legal cost and what risk you're running," Emmett said, "so it was the recommendation of the county attorney and so we went along with it."

Simon, who had been a sheriff's office employee since February 2004, had been diagnosed with pseudofolliculitis barbae and acne keloidalis nuchae, a medical condition that affects only African-Americans. The condition prohibits him from close shaving to prevent permanent scarring, disfigurement and other symptoms.

In June 2007, Simon was pulled off the streets and placed on a transitional assignment for violating the county's facial hair policy. He was banned him from wearing his uniform, working overtime and working any other police-related side jobs.

Simon showed the county his medical records to prove he had to maintain a beard of at least one-quarter of an inch in length as recommended by his doctor.

However, the county told him he would remain penalized if he didn't shave and threatened to fire him after a year.

Simon then filed a lawsuit against the Harris County Sheriff's Office, claiming the county is discriminating against him and other African-American men who suffer from the same condition.

It's also a condition former Houston Police Officer Shelby Stewart also knows well.

"In certain areas of the face, you can bump up real bad," Stewart said. "My biggest problem is under my chin."

Stewart was among several HPD officers who filed a similar beard lawsuit against the City of Houston back in 2007. But their case was tossed out, and Stewart has since retired from the department.

"It's really tough on the African Americans that still work there, that have to deal with this issue every day," he said.

But our legal analyst says this case was different.

"Harris County doesn't want to be in federal court," ABC13 Legal Analyst Joel Androphy said.

Androphy says once the federal magistrate was willing to let Deputy Simon's case go forward, the county wanted to avoid the spectacle of a trial and spent taxpayer's money to make it go away.

"I'm very surprised. I only think they did it because they just wanted to be rid of the prior policies of prior administrations," Androphy said, "and if it took 400,000, then it took 400,000."

Since then, the county has changed its policy to include medical exemptions to its clean shaven beard policy. It's now the same Houston Police Department's policy.

Neither Simon nor his attorney has returned any of ABC13's phone calls seeking comment.

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