Corrections Officer Wins $1.48 Million In Damages

Corrections Officer Wins $1.48 Million In Damages

Written on 09/21/2019
Will Aitchison

Richard Dixson has been employed by the Missouri Department of Corrections (DOC) since 1995 and has worked at its Kansas City Reentry Center since 1998. When Dixson first started working for the DOC, he was a Corrections Officer 1, or prison guard. He was promoted to Corrections Classifications Assistant, a position that helped offenders find jobs, complete job applications, and operate in the community. Eventually, his position was reclassified to Reentry Activity Coordinator, for which he continued to work closely with offenders to help them successfully reintegrate into society.
For several years prior to 2014, Dixson also served as a union steward. Through this position, he became very familiar with DOC policies and procedures.

In June 2014, Dixson filed a hostile work environment complaint alleging that Warden Lilly Angelo was nitpicking and harassing him regarding how he was carrying his pepper spray and his two-way radio. Dixson filed a grievance and was eventually able to get Angelo’s directive regarding how employees were to carry their pepper spray and radios overturned. Dixson believed that Angelo’s nitpicking and harassment of him was based on his race. Dixson is Caucasian, and Angelo is African-American.

Six months after Dixson filed the grievance, he alleged that Angelo wrongly took away his IT duties, sabotaged his opportunity to reclassify his position to one at a higher pay level, and denied him flex time. Dixson eventually filed a state law race discrimination and retaliation lawsuit against the State and Angelo. When a jury awarded Dixson $280,000 in actual damages and $1.2 million in punitive damages, the State appealed.

The Missouri Court of Appeals upheld the jury’s verdict. The State’s argument focused on its motion to exclude “me too” testimony from Beatrice Young, Gena Ross, Jennifer LaFleur, and Leesa Wiseman on the basis that it was irrelevant and prejudicial because the witnesses and Dixson were not similarly situated. During a hearing on the motion, Dixson’s counsel went through each of the four witnesses and discussed the aspects of similarity between their situations and Dixson’s. The trial court found that each of the four witnesses were employed at the same facility and during the same time as Dixson, under the same management, and, like Dixson, faced retaliation after filing discrimination claims. The trial court concluded that such evidence was “very compelling” and “very similar to Dixson’s circumstances and his theory of the case.”

The Appeals Court upheld the trial court’s denial of the motion to exclude the testimony of the four witnesses. The Court observed that “all four of the ‘me too’ witnesses testified that they filed complaints of discrimination and that, after doing so, they, too, suffered retaliation. Dixson further alleged that the DOC knew about the discrimination and harassment but failed to remedy it and maintained inadequate and ineffective written and unwritten policies, procedures, or guidelines with respect to discrimination and retaliation. Like Dixson, Young, Ross, and LaFleur testified that, after they complained about discrimination, harassment, or a hostile work environment, the DOC did nothing in response to their complaints.

“While the DOC argues that the testimonies of the four ‘me too’ witnesses should have been excluded because the ‘me too’ witnesses were female, some were African-American, and the ways in which they were discriminated and retaliated against were different in some respects from Dixson’s experiences, we find those differences were less relevant than their commonalities. Although not similarly situated in all respects, their shared characteristics made their ‘me too’ evidence relevant and admissible.”

Dixson v. Missouri Department of Corrections, 2019 WL 3294205 (Mo. Ct. App. 2019).