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Appeals court reinstates punitive damages for Jackson County deputy

Jessica Shumaker//June 9, 2020//

Appeals court reinstates punitive damages for Jackson County deputy

Jessica Shumaker//June 9, 2020//

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A Missouri appeals court has reinstated a $300,000 punitive damages award for a Jackson County sheriff’s deputy in his sexual harassment and retaliation suit against his employer after ruling there was substantial evidence to support punitive damages.

On June 2, a three-judge panel of the Missouri Court of Appeals Western District reversed a lower court’s post-trial decision to set aside punitive damages awarded to LaVanden Darks in his suit against Jackson County.

Darks sued the county, the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department, former Sheriff Mike Sharp, Col. Hugh Mills and Sgt. Rhonda Montgomery in 2017. His suit included claims of race, sex and disability discrimination, sexual harassment, and retaliation and workers’ compensation retaliation.

Darks joined the department in 2012. According to his suit, his problems began two years later when his doctor diagnosed him with a skin condition that made it painful for him to shave his face, a requirement of the job. The condition predominantly affects black men such as Darks.

He alleged the department’s policy requiring shaving had a disparate impact on him and opened him up to scrutiny, ridicule and derogatory remarks from his supervisors. He also alleged he was wrongfully accused of sexual harassment and his supervisor filed a false complaint against him.

In March 2019, a Jackson County jury found the county liable for his claims of sexual harassment and retaliation and awarded Darks $75,000 in compensatory damages and $300,000 in punitive damages.

After the trial, the county filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. Judge Roger M. Prokes, a 4th Circuit judge who presided over the case as a visiting judge, granted the motion in part.

He threw out the punitive damages after ruling there was insufficient evidence to justify the submission of punitive damages to the jury. He denied the portion of the county’s motion seeking to throw out the verdicts on Darks’ sexual harassment and retaliation claims.

Both sides appealed Prokes’ ruling. Darks challenged Prokes’ partial grant of the county’s motion, and the county appealed Prokes’ denial of portions of the motion.

On appeal, Darks argued that Prokes erred in granting Jackson County’s motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict because there was substantial evidence presented at trial from which a jury could find he clearly and convincingly demonstrated that the county engaged in outrageous conduct.

Judge Lisa White Hardwick, who wrote the opinion, recounted evidence provided to the jury and agreed with Darks.

“From the evidence adduced at trial, a jury could plainly infer that supervisory employees in Jackson County engaged in outrageous conduct either through the intentional completion of any number of wrongful acts or through the reckless disregard of Darks’s rights,” she said.

Judges Cynthia L. Martin and Thomas N. Chapman agreed.

The panel also granted Darks’ request for attorneys’ fees on appeal. The court remanded the case for further proceedings.

The court ultimately denied the county’s points on appeal, including that Darks failed to adequately plead the theory of sexual harassment.

Katherine Myers of Edelman, Liesen & Myers in Kansas City, who represented Darks, said they were happy with the court’s ruling.

“Generally speaking, the issues on appeal were heavily fact questions. Those were really issues for the jury,” she said.

Deputy County Counselor Ashley Garrett represented the county. She did not respond to a message seeking comment.

The case is Darks v. Jackson County, Missouri, WD82797.

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