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Hillsborough deputy wins employment fight after discipline challenge

A judge upheld a referee’s finding that Sheriff’s Officials had no just cause to discipline Deputy Tonia Ballard after an attempted jail escape.
Hillsborough County Sheriff's Master Deputy Tonia Ballard appears in a photo provided by her attorney.
Hillsborough County Sheriff's Master Deputy Tonia Ballard appears in a photo provided by her attorney. [ Paul Sisco ]
Published Nov. 4, 2022|Updated Nov. 5, 2022

TAMPA — When a detained woman was injured two summers ago during an escape attempt from a Hillsborough County jail facility, sheriff’s officials blamed one of their own.

Tonia Ballard, a longtime Hillsborough sheriff’s deputy, was accused of not following proper procedures and making mistakes that her superiors said failed to prevent the escape. She was disciplined and demoted. But an independent review found there was no just cause for the action.

On Thursday came yet another ruling in Ballard’s favor. Rejecting an appeal from sheriff’s officials, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Melissa Polo ruled that a referee’s decision to remove Ballard’s discipline and restore her to the rank of master deputy was supported by the evidence in the case.

“It was sort of the little person who took on the system,” said Paul Sisco, who with attorney Jay Lechner represented Ballard in her employment fight. “She wasn’t going to tolerate being made a scapegoat for their errors.”

The Sheriff’s Office declined to comment on the case. It is unclear if they will continue to appeal.

Related: After jail escape attempt, a Hillsborough deputy was disciplined. But was she to blame?

Ballard, 49, was among numerous sheriff’s deputies who worked courthouse security but were reassigned in 2020 to the jail amid COVID-19 lockdowns. She had previous experience working the jail, but hadn’t worked there in more than a decade. In that time, certain procedures had changed. Her attorney said she wasn’t given adequate training on the new methods.

The incident that gave rise to the dispute occurred Sept. 20, 2020. Ballard was working in a two-story housing unit for female detainees in the Orient Road Jail. While she was stationed at a desk on the first floor, a detained woman, Shelby Hartley, managed to get inside the ceiling over a second-floor walkway. She spent more than a half-hour concealed, crawling above the ceiling.

Other detainees, deputies and Ballard soon noticed what was happening. Ballard imposed a lockdown. Hartley fell to the floor, injuring herself, according to court records. She later recovered in a hospital.

An internal Sheriff’s Office review of the incident focused on Ballard. She was accused of policy violations, including negligence, inattention to duty and failing to follow directives.

Her superiors sought a five-day suspension. Ballard appealed to a complaint review board, which lowered the recommended discipline to a three-day suspension. In the wake of her appeal, the Sheriff’s Office increased her discipline to 15 days and demoted her from the rank of master deputy.

Ballard appealed again through a process run by the Hillsborough County government.

An appointed referee, Fredric R. Dichter, heard the case. In a written order, he found that Ballard did not intentionally violate any policy. He also questioned why Ballard wasn’t simply counseled and given an opportunity to correct her mistakes.

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He expressed concern that the investigation of the the escape attempt turned into an investigation of her. He noted that Ballard’s discipline increased after she appealed, something he said “has a chilling effect on an employee’s exercise of their rights.”

With Judge Polo upholding Dichter’s order, Ballard’s attorney has asked that she be restored to the rank of master deputy and be given back pay resulting from the demotion and suspension.

She remains assigned to the Hillsborough County jail, her attorney said, but would like to return to courthouse duty.