District found liable for hostile work environment, constructive discharge

By Jessica Shumaker, May 24, 2016Originally published by Missouri Lawyers Weekly.A jury awarded a former Jefferson City Public Schools journalism teacher $249,000 in damages in her suit against the district alleging that she faced a hostile work environment and constructive discharge.On May 17, a Cole County jury awarded plaintiff Karen Ray 24,000 in compensatory damages for her claims of hostile environment based on age or sex and constructive discharge, and $225,000 in punitive damages. The verdicts followed a seven-day trial.After four hours of deliberation, 11jurors signed the hostile work environment verdict and nine signed theconstructive discharge verdict and approved punitive damages.Ray’s lead attorney was Dennis Egan of the Popham Law Firm in Kansas City. Egan said he was relieved and gratified with the result, given the conservative venue and jury makeup of 10 men and two women.“If this were tried somewhere else, it likely would have been much higher, but Idon’t care, this was for Karen Ray and the former teachers and it was something that needed to be aired in public,” he said.Ray sued the district in 2014 after her resignation from Jefferson City High School the prior year.In her petition, she alleged that in January 2013, she was notified by her supervisor, the school principal, that she would be replaced as newspaper adviser by a less experienced male teacher who had not taught journalism and lacked teaching certification in the subject.Ray protested her replacement in a let:ter to the district superintendent. In a meeting two days later with the principal, she alleged that the principal told her he would replace her in all of her journalism classes with the same teacher replacing her as newspaper adviser the next school year, without explanation.Ray alleged that she had witnessed school administration “using tactics of bullying, lies and intimidation” to force out veteran teachers, and also alleged that her principal had said he needed to get rid of the ”old, dead weight around here.”Ray’s petition also included other allegations of harassment by other administrators tied to the training of her replacement, and a threat to contact her new employer.The district denied Ray’s allegations in their response to the suit. Their lead attorney was Thomas A. Mickes, of Mickes OToole in St. Louis. He said it was unclear at this point if the school district would appeal.“Y7e were disappointed, but it was a somewhat unusual case from a number of aspects,“ he said, including a mix-up with the verdict forms where the jury initially filled out the constructive discharge verdict form finding in favor of Ray, but awarding no actual damages, and finding the district liable for punitive damages.The jurors indicated that they’d misunderstood the form and returned it with $12,000 in actual damages, in addition to the $12,000 awarded in the hostile work environment claim.He also said it was a case where a large number of witnesses were deposed prior to trial — 17 depositions were completed in the two weeks leading to trial. He said the defense asked the judge to continue so the case could go to mediation, which was denied by the judge.Egan said the defense’s case was that Ray misunderstood that she was being removed from the journalism program— the district claimed it had plans to expand it and she’d be in charge of the program’s staff — and that she’d left to be closer to her family.”They just said she quit, it had nothing to do with us and it wasn’t hostile,” he said.Egan said Ray’s case was bolstered by testimony of current and former district employees, including a current employee who testified about the administration’s plan to replace older teachers. Cross examination of the administrators involved was also key.Egan said the case is very important for his client and the community.“Hopefully it will lead to them making positive changes and starting to heal the district,” he said. Egan said he plans to file a motion for attorney’s fees and to request future damages for Ray.The case is had v. School District of Jefferson City, 14AC-CC00384.http://molawyersmedia.com/2016/05/24/district—found-liable-for-hostile—work—environment-constructive-discharge

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