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DOC employee gets $1.97M in harassment case

DOC employee gets $1.97M in harassment case

September 20th, 2017 by Bob Watson in Local News
Missouri Department of Corrections logo

Missouri's Corrections Department still owes Debra Hesse nearly $1.97 million in damages, attorney fees and litigation costs, a state appeals court panel ruled Tuesday.

And the court sent the case back to the trial court in Kansas City to determine how much more Hesse should get for her attorneys' fees during the appeal process.

Hesse sued the department in 2014 for gender harassment and retaliation, while she worked at both the Tipton Correctional Center and the Kansas City Release Center.

Although the appeals court ruling has no details, Hesse's case was one of several highlighted by Kansas City's weekly newspaper, the Pitch, in November 2016, providing some of the first public details about numerous harassment complaints in the department that runs Missouri's prisons and the probation and parole programs.

Hesse's case went to trial in January 2016.

The Pitch reported Hesse testified, while working in the Tipton prison, she had filed several complaints of abuse and harassment, angering supervisors.

After transferring to Kansas City, Hesse said, she was identified as being "trouble" and was warned by a supervisor she just needed to "sit back and go with the flow."

A co-worker, Tina Gallego, told the jury at Hesse's trial it was commonplace for male employees to call women "whores and other derogatory names," and retaliation to complaints was the norm.

Gallego's testimony was one of the department's complaints in its appeal — trial Judge W. Brent Powell, now a member of the state Supreme Court, should not have allowed Gallego's irrelevant and prejudicial "me too" testimony.

Citing a 2015 state Supreme Court case, Appeals Court Judge Anthony Rex Gabbert wrote: "Evidence is logically relevant if it tends to make the existence of any consequential fact more or less probable (or) if its probative value outweighs any prejudicial effect on the jury."

Since Gallego's testimony corroborated Hesse's case theory, Powell didn't make a mistake in allowing it, the court ruled.

"The two women had both worked for the same facility, reported to several of the same superior officers, suffered harassing and retaliatory conduct based on their sex, attempted to avail themselves of the same anti-discrimination policy, and had their complaints summarily dismissed," Gabbert wrote for the appeals court.

"While the (department) is correct that there were also differences in their experiences, those differences were less relevant than their commonalities."

After the jury's verdict and post-trial motions, Powell awarded Hesse $500,000 in actual damages and $1 million in punitive damages.

She also received $463,323.75 in attorney fees, $1,389.15 in litigation expenses and $5,168.75 in other court costs.

The department's appeal argued Powell had abused his discretion by awarding Hesse attorney fees unreasonable under terms of the Missouri Human Rights Act.

The appeals court disagreed because Powell's judgment was "properly considered, given the case size and the excellent results obtained by Hesse's counsel."

And the department said Powell had no legal authority to award the litigation expenses.

"The trial court's discretion to determine court costs is broad," Gabbert wrote.