The Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office promoted John Acton to a supervisory position over the county’s school resource officers in 2020 while his sister, Deputy Chief Preble Acton, may have served on the promotions board that selected him, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court.

Rules regarding nepotism are not addressed in the promotion board’s Standard Operating Procedure document provided by the county’s Human Resources Department.

RCSO spokeswoman Lisa Marchesoni wrote in an email that the sheriff’s office and the Actons cannot comment about ongoing lawsuits.

Last month, Deputy Roscoe Sanders filed a $2.5 million discrimination lawsuit against the sheriff’s office about the same promotion with the United States District Court for Middle Tennessee.

Sanders’ lawsuit says that he had been denied a promotion to sergeant by an all-white selection committee, who agreed to promote a white officer over himself, a Black officer.

Five individuals — the sheriff, chief deputy and three deputy chiefs — were listed in the promotional process, according to the lawsuit.

While the complaint doesn’t explicitly state that those officials served on the selection committee, the number of members and their rankings match the makeup of one of the listed promotions boards in the Standard Operating Procedure document.

Among the listed names was Preble Acton, sister of SRO Sgt. John Acton.

The sergeant’s personal Facebook page confirms the familial relation under the “Family and Relationships” tab of his profile.

At press time, the county had not responded to a public records request for details about the promotion board’s process, including if Preble Acton participated in the discussion or voted for the promotion.

John Acton, who studied criminal justice administration at Middle Tennessee State University, has worked at the sheriff’s office for more than 20 years. He previously served as an SRO at Smyrna High School.

The lawsuit never names John Acton as the recipient of the promotion, but it does state that the promoted individual was related to a “high-ranking official,” who made a derogatory comment about Sanders relating to the color of his skin.

The document uses the pronoun “she” in reference to an instance where the same official was asked why Sanders did not receive the promotion.

In the lawsuit, the female official is accused of calling Sanders a “dumb (expletive racial epitaph), and that he should’ve been fired “when they had the chance.”

Preble Acton is the only woman whose name appears within the lawsuit.

Promotions board procedures

Per the Standard Operating Procedure document, the employees seeking that sergeant’s position should have had a selection committee made up of three lieutenants and two sergeants with the Division Captain “in need of personnel” serving as the moderator.

The promotions document in effect in June 2020 lists three promotion board configurations to fill specific vacancies. Each board is composed of five members and a moderator in two instances.

The rankings of the five members listed in the lawsuit correlate with a board that would be used to promote an employee to “Captain or above.”

To advance to the interview stage, the applicant must not have had any disciplinary action taken within the past 12 months, according to the guidelines.

The lawsuit says both John Acton and Sanders had previously applied for sergeant positions and both officers had reached the formal interview stage in previous promotion attempts.

Sanders, a Siegel High School SRO in his 16th year with the sheriff’s office, states in the lawsuit that he had scored higher than his current superior in previous interviews.

A scoring system or rubric does not appear to have been used for this particular promotion and is not mentioned within the Standard Operating Procedure.

The conclusion section of the four-page procedural document notes that there will “not be a score sheet.” Instead, members of the board were able to take “detailed notes” related to the interviewees’ responses.

Each captain serving on the board may cast a vote for the selection to be made.

The Sheriff’s Executive Board would have made the selection for the top candidate with Sheriff Mike Fitzhugh having the final say on who is approved for the position.

The pending lawsuit isn’t the first time the sheriff’s office and the practices of its promotions board have been called into question. Another $2.5 million lawsuit for age discrimination was filed by Sanders and SROs Ronnie Ralston and Kerry Nelson on Oct. 3, 2019. That lawsuit is also still pending.