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Suit survives for officer who says she had to quit

Angela Riley//June 30, 2009

Suit survives for officer who says she had to quit

Angela Riley//June 30, 2009

A police officer’s discrimination lawsuit against a St. Louis suburb will proceed after a ruling from the Missouri Supreme Court.

St. Louis County Judge James Hartenbach granted the city of Maplewood’s motion for summary judgment on the grounds that officer Ellen Wallingsford’s suit was filed too late. But the Supreme Court found that the judge had failed to comply with summary judgment procedures by not allowing Wallingsford to present additional evidence that discriminatory actions were taken during the filing period.

“By denying Wallingsford the opportunity to file a supplemental affidavit detailing her working conditions during the final two months of her employment, the trial court deprived her of the opportunity to respond to Maplewood’s factual allegations,” Judge Richard Teitelman wrote for the unanimous court. The denial, he wrote “is especially problematic because the crux of Wallingsford’s claim is that continued employment was intolerable due to ongoing discrimination.”

Wallingsford served as a Maplewood police officer from 1986 until her resignation on Aug. 29, 2004. She filed her charge of discrimination with the Missouri Human Rights Commission on Jan. 20, 2005 and was issued her right to sue letter a year later. She filed suit in March 2006.

Her petition alleged that the discrimination occurred throughout her employment until her constructive discharge on Aug. 29, 2004 and included abusive behavior by male colleagues, baseless internal investigations, failures to promote and “sham” evaluations.

In May 2006, Maplewood filed a motion to dismiss claiming she failed to allege an act of discrimination that occurred within 180 days of filing her discrimination complaint with the commission. An individual alleging unlawful discrimination has to file a complaint with the commission within 180 days of the discrimination. Hartenbach treated the city’s motion to dismiss as a motion for summary judgment and granted the motion on the basis that Wallingsford’s claims were time-barred.

On appeal, The Supreme Court found that the trial court had not complied with Rule 74.04, which outlines summary judgment procedures. This compromised the parties’ ability to provide the court with the information necessary to enter summary judgment in the case, Teitelman said.

The rule requires the movant to state the legal basis for the motion, a statement of uncontroverted material facts and file a legal memorandum explaining why summary judgment should be granted. The adverse party must admit or deny each of the movant’s factual allegations.

“The general rule as I understand it is Rule [74.04] as it relates to summary judgment has to be followed to the letter,” said Wallingsford’s attorney, John Toma, of Toma Zensen. “After the conversion of the motion to dismiss to the motion for summary judgment, the trial court didn’t think it was necessary to comply with the rule. But as the non-moving party we didn’t know what we were responding to, and it put us in a tremendous disadvantage. The [Supreme Court] said [in this opinion] that once the court treats [the motion to dismiss] as a summary judgment, they have to go back and conform to the summary judgment rule.”

The court also determined that constructive discharge resulting from discrimination can constitute an alleged act of discrimination. According to the court, constructive discharge occurs when an employer deliberately renders an employee’s working conditions so intolerable that the employee is forced to quit his or her job.

“This is the first time the court, to my knowledge, has spoke on the issue, whether the discharge if – in itself – is a discriminatory action,” Toma said. “This can have lasting implications.”

The summary judgment was reversed and the case was remanded to St. Louis County Circuit Court for further proceedings.

Maplewood’s attorney, Laura Staley, of Husch Blackwell Sanders, said she had no comment at this time.

The case is Ellen Wallingsford v. City of Maplewood, SC89862.

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