In a decision that could have repercussions for districts across Missouri, a Missouri appellate court has upheld a jury decision against the Kansas City School District with damages totaling almost $450,000. See Hurst v. Kansas City Mo. Sch. Dist., No. WD76534 (Mo. App. W.D. April 29, 2014). The decision highlights methods that many districts are using to “creatively” cut workforce and circumstances where such methods break the law. Hit the jump for all the details…
In Hurst, a group of school psychological examiners were notified that their positions were being eliminated and replaced with “educational diagnostician” positions. The individuals were told that the new position would have counseling duties that had not previously been present and that they were all free to apply for the positions. Many districts are using this “reapply for your job” technique, particularly in districts that are struggling with accreditation issues.
The school district claimed that decisions on who would be hired would be based on a combination of previous work performance and an interview by a committee. Despite previous positive evaluations, the employee at issue was not chosen for one of the new diagnostician positions and, after declining placement in a fifth-grade course offered to her two weeks before the beginning of school, she retired from the district. The employee filed a claim with the Missouri Human Rights Commission alleging age-discrimination, filed suit on the claim, and the jury awarded the plaintiff $247,083.78 in lost wages and pain and suffering and $200,000 in punitive damages, with the judge also requiring reinstatement of the employee. The district appealed the decision.
While the appeal holds many interesting tidbits for attorneys (the district raised 8 points on appeal!), what the employee was able to show at the trial may be the most interesting aspect as finding evidence is always the most difficult part of a discrimination claim. At trial, the employee was able to demonstrate that not only were all four of the oldest employees not offered a position while all four of the youngest were but also that in her interview she was routinely scored as providing worse answers than younger applicants, even when they said the same thing. Additionally, the employee had testimony from another employee of the district who was similarly forced to reapply for his position (and who also had an age-discrimination suit pending against the district) as well as two of the individuals who were chosen for the position and who were expressly told not to aid older employees in preparing for the interview. Finally, the employee had evidence that the district never implemented the counseling requirement and that by refusing to hire the older workers, the district left several of the new positions vacant.
The appellate court reviewing the jury’s decision (and therefore viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the verdict) found sufficient evidence not only to uphold the finding of age-discrimination but also to support the finding of punitive damages, which are reserved for circumstances where the discrimination is found to be wantonly, willfully, outrageously, or recklessly done. The court canvassed the other points raised by the district on appeal and dismissed all of them, upholding the entirety of the lower court’s decision.
Discrimination claims are never easy lawsuits to win and even when you win the process is long and grueling (the initial employment decision in Hurst was made almost four years ago). However, when you have a good set of facts, the results can be very positive. Hopefully, districts looking at the Hurst decision will be very careful to ensure that the contribution of more experienced education employees are appropriately valued when making employment decision, especially those that are already under accreditation pressure.
If you are a Missouri NEA member and believe that you may have been discriminated against, you should contact your UniServ Director / Union Representative as soon as possible. Claims of discrimination have a very strict 180 day time limit so it is important not to delay.