A Jackson County jury awarded a record $11 million to a former deputy warden who alleged she faced a series of retaliatory actions that led to her termination.
Leesa Wiseman’s case is the latest in a series of employment suits against the Missouri Department of Corrections. However, the award, which includes a total of $9.5 million in punitive damages, appears to be the largest verdict rendered against the agency in such a case.
Eric Playter of Playter Trial Lawyers in Kansas City, an attorney for Wiseman, said the escalatory steps against his client resulted in the large verdict.
“We thought the case was really a retaliation case,” he said.
Chris Nuelle, a spokesman for the Missouri Attorney General’s Office, which defended the department, declined to comment, adding that they were reviewing the decision and deciding on next steps.
According to Playter, Wiseman worked for DOC from 1989 until her termination in 2019. She rose to deputy warden at the Kansas City Reentry Center. But in 2016, she testified in a deposition in another employee’s discrimination case. Playter said shortly after that testimony, she was placed on an employee improvement plan.
Playter said that in early 2017, her supervisor ordered her and others to “do something” about the amount of family leave being taken by employees. After Wiseman reported what she believed to be an illegal order to superiors, her supervisor failed her on her improvement plan.
Wiseman was transferred to a lower-stature role in probation and parole and later moved to the department’s office in Belton. She alleged she faced resistance to taking time off when she was diagnosed with cancer.
Playter said his client was accused in May 2018 of acting unprofessionally to subordinates, which led to her suspension and transfer to another facility and ultimately to her firing the following March. Playter, however, said DOC hadn’t acted on the accusation until after it received her right-to-sue notice.
Wiseman succeeded on claims of hostile work environment and retaliation. However, jurors rejected her claims of discrimination based on race and sex, and Judge Jennifer Phillips entered a directed verdict on DOC’s behalf on a claim of disability discrimination.
Wiseman’s final award will be shaped by a legislative overhaul of Missouri’s employment laws that went into effect in 2017. Jurors gave two verdicts — one totaling $4.5 million for the period before the law’s effective date, and another of more than $6.5 million for later conduct.
The latter verdict contains a more detailed breakdown of Wiseman’s damages, as the law now caps the damages she can recover as the amount of back pay and interest, plus $500,000. The exact application of that cap in this case could lead to additional litigation.
“It highlights the absurdity of what the legislature is doing in taking way people’s Seventh Amendment rights,” Playter said.
$11 MILLION VERDICT
■ Breakdown: For pre-Aug. 28, 2017 conduct: $750,000
actual damages, $3,750,000 punitive damages. For post-Aug.
28, 2017 conduct: $176,053.60 in back pay, $100,000 past
economic losses, $550,300 future economic losses, $250,000
noneconomic losses, $5,500,000 punitive damages
■ Venue: Jackson County Circuit Court
■ Case Number/Date: 1816-CV27602/July 21, 2022
■ Judge: Jennifer Phillips
■ Caption: Leesa Wiseman v. Missouri Department of
■ Plaintiff’s Attorneys: Eric Playter and Chris Playter, Playter
Trial Lawyers, Kansas City; David Lunceford, Lunceford Law
Firm, Lee’s Summit
■ Defendants’ Attorneys: Ashley Ray and Eliot Gusdorf,
Missouri Attorney General’s Office, Jefferson City