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Damages for ex-DOC officer affirmed on appeal

The Missouri Court of Appeals Western District affirmed $140,000 in damages for a former Missouri Department of Corrections officer who alleged her supervisor discriminated against her for being a Lebanese Muslim person.

According to court records, plaintiff Amina Alhalabi’s supervisor had mocked her speech patterns and accent in front of others and said derogatory remarks about people in the Middle East, including that he wanted to become a sniper to kill Muslims there. The supervisor also allegedly assigned her to transfer nude male prisoners though it was against her religion. She resigned after being denied a transfer to another facility and was told she would have to keep working with the supervisor.

A Calloway County jury sided with Alhalabi for her hostile work environment claim and sided with the DOC on a claim of constructive discharge. Later, more than $672,000 in attorney’s fees and more than $15,000 in costs were tacked onto the original damages award. On appeal before the Western District, the DOC claimed that a witness, Stephen Bergeron, who testified to his own experiences of discrimination in Alhalabi’s case, should have been excluded as “me too” evidence because their claims were not related.

In a March 7 opinion, Judge Thomas N. Chapman disagreed, stating that Alhalabi and the witness both held positions at the DOC in the same general period under the same anti-discrimination policy and human resources office, came to the United States from another country, and are Muslim.

“Furthermore, and importantly, the complaints of discriminatory harassment made by Bergeron and Alhalabi were brought to the attention of the DOC’s central HR office, which failed to act in each case,” Chapman wrote.

Judges Mark D. Pfeiffer and Cynthia L. Martin concurred.

The DOC also challenged the attorney’s fees on appeal, claiming that the award’s lodestar of $448,653 should at least have been halved because just one of Alhalabi’s two claims succeeded. She also did not win punitive damages.

Chapman said the focus on the award, rather than the number of hours the attorneys logged or their hourly rates, was misplaced, as the plaintiff attorneys’ work on the two claims to convince the jury that Alhalabi’s experience in an alleged hostile work environment led her to quit her job could not be separated.

“The DOC has not identified any time expended on the constructive discharge claim that is severable from the hostile work environment claim,” Chapman wrote.

The DOC also challenged the use of a 1.5 multiplier in the calculation of attorneys’ fees. Chapman agreed with the trial court that it properly considered the less risky work that the two plaintiff attorneys turned away and delays in their other cases to work on this case.

Chapman remanded the case to the trial court to determine Alhalabi’s reasonable attorneys’ fees for the appeal.

Benjamin Westhoff of Sedey Harper Westhoff in St. Louis represented Alhalabi.

“Our client is pleased with the Western District opinion that was recently issued, and looks forward to getting the matter ultimately resolved now that the Court of Appeals has accepted our arguments on things such as ‘me too’ evidence and the attorneys’ fees,” Westhoff said.

Jeremiah Morgan of Jefferson City and James Galbraith of St. Louis from the Missouri Attorney General’s Office represented the DOC.

“We are reviewing and determining if additional legal proceedings would be warranted,” Madeline Sieren, a spokeswoman for the AGO, said in a statement.

The case is Amina Alhalabi v. Missouri Department of Corrections, WD85012.