Missouri Corrections Worker Can Keep Her $2M Job Bias Award

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By Patrick Dorrian

The Missouri Department of Corrections must pay a woman nearly $2 million after a state appeals court upheld a jury’s finding that she was subjected to sex discrimination and retaliation while working at two of the department’s facilities ( Hesse v. Mo. Dep’t of Corr. , 2017 BL 328968, Mo. Ct. App. W.D., No. WD79809, 9/19/17 ).

The jury had found that Debra Hesse was subjected to gender harassment and retaliation while working at Tipton Correctional Center and Kansas City Reentry Center. The harassment included being told that female corrections officers shouldn’t work in a facility for male prisoners, Hesse’s attorney, Martin M. Meyers, told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 20.

Hesse was also directed to take out the trash because of her sex, he said.

Several witnesses testified at trial that male sergeants and lieutenants regularly remarked that “women don’t belong in male prisons,” Meyers said. The comments were made in an apparent attempt to drive Hesse from her job, he said. Meyers is with The Meyers Law Firm L.C. in Kansas City, Mo.

None of MDOC’s challenges to the trial judge’s handling of the case warranted overturning the trial court’s judgment in favor of Hesse, the Missouri Court of Appeals said Sept. 19. Hesse was awarded $500,000 in compensatory damages, $1 million in punitive damages, $463,324 in attorneys’ fees, and $6,558 in other expenses and court costs.

MDOC pointed to alleged errors in the verdict form the jurors used and in the admittance of “me too” testimony from another female employee who allegedly experienced similar mistreatment. But the department didn’t show how the use of a single verdict form for both the harassment and the retaliation claims confused or misled the jury, and it in fact may have benefited MDOC, the appeals court said.

The joint form prevented the jury from making overlapping or duplicative damages awards on Hesse’s harassment and retaliation claims, it said.

‘Me Too’ Evidence Relevant

Allowing Tina Gallegos to testify during Hesse’s trial wasn’t an abuse of discretion by the trial judge, because the testimony corroborated Hesse’s contention that MDOC failed to enforce its workplace anti-discrimination policy, Judge Anthony Rex Gabbert said for the appeals court.

Hesse and Gallegos worked at the same facility and were supervised by some of the same superior officers, Gabbert said They also experienced similar gender-based harassment, tried to complain pursuant to the department’s anti-discrimination policy, and had their complaints dismissed out of hand, he said.

That made Gallegos’ testimony relevant to Hesse’s job bias claims, the court said.

The appeals court also rejected MDOC’s arguments regarding the trial judge’s awards of attorneys’ fees and litigation expenses to Hesse.

“We’re pleased that the court affirmed the judgment in favor of our client and hopeful that the size of the verdict will spur the department to take long overdue” measures to correct the hostile work environment for female prison workers, Meyers said. He noted that most of the facilities in Missouri are men’s prisons.

The Missouri attorney general’s office, which represented MDOC, didn’t respond Sept. 20 to Bloomberg BNA’s request for comment.

Judges Mark D. Pfeiffer and Karen King Mitchell joined the opinion.

To contact the reporter on this story: Patrick Dorrian in Washington at pdorrian@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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