Lavanden Darks is one of four black deputies with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department in Missouri. Jackson County employs approximately 100 sworn officers. In 2014, Jackson County required all sworn officers appearing in uniform to be clean shaven with the exception of moustaches. Darks experienced pain with shaving and was medically diagnosed with an inflammatory skin condition known as psuedofolliculitis barbae.
After attempting several treatments and other shaving methods, Darks sought an accommodation allowing him to appear in uniform with a manicured beard. He complained after the leadership of the Sheriff’s Department displayed open hostility to the idea and informed him that he could take sick leave to address the issue. Sheriff Mike Sharp, after discussing the issue with the county counselor, eventually agreed to the accommodation. Darks, however, stated that even after granting the accommodation, leadership within the Department expressed open displeasure with his facial hair and insinuated that he should seek employment at another law enforcement agency if shaving was too difficult.
A series of negative performance reviews and reassignments followed, including references insinuating that Darks was a “Brady cop,” a reference indicating that prosecutors would have to disclose that Darks was dishonest when prosecuting any cases originating from him.
Darks sued the County and assorted supervisors, alleging claims of discrimination and harassment based on race, sex, disability, and retaliation pursuant to the Missouri Human Rights Act. A jury found in favor of Darks on his claims of sexual harassment and retaliation, awarding him $75,000 in actual damages and $300,000 in punitive damages. The trial court subsequently awarded Darks $371,610 in attorney fees.
The trial court granted the County’s request to set aside the award of punitive damages. Both Darks and the County then appealed.
The Missouri Court of Appeals sided with Darks and reinstated the award of punitive damages. The Court commented that “whether a plaintiff has provided evidence sufficient to support an award of punitive damages is a question of law, which we review de novo. We view the evidence and all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to submissibility of punitive damages and disregard all evidence and inferences which are adverse thereto.
“Material to the point at issue here, Darks presented evidence from which a jury could have determined that Darks was employed as a sheriff’s deputy and that his performance, while not without difficulties, satisfactorily met the standards expected of that position. After the accommodation for shaving was made, supervisors repeatedly and openly expressed their displeasure with his facial hair. Darks stated that they continued to inform him that shaving was necessary and that he could work at another law enforcement agency if shaving was too difficult. The jury could reasonably infer that this open hostility led to a targeted campaign against Darks.
“Further supporting this inference, the jury heard evidence of an investigation into Darks’ residency. Jackson County has a policy that all deputies must reside within the county. Evidence was presented that an individual from the Blue Springs School District, former Jackson County Sheriff Tom Phillips, informed Jackson County that Darks had enrolled his son in classes and that Phillips believed Darks no longer resided in Jackson County. It was later discovered the Darks and his wife were separated and his wife had taken up residence outside Jackson County, but Darks continued to live within the County.
“The jury could reasonably infer that such investigation was a pretext, especially in light of an email, sent from Phillips to a supervisor, in which Phillips stated: ‘Since Darks withdrew his child, we concluded our investigation. That’s what we normally do. Sorry. Probably not enough to terminate yet. Start your file. He will give you plenty of ammo.’ Further, the supervisor was less than forthcoming regarding the opening of ‘a file’ on Darks, initially stating that, at the time she received the email from Phillips, she had not yet opened any such file. This statement, however, was immediately contradicted by Darks presenting an email, in the chain with Phillips, in which the supervisor stated: ‘P.S. My file is already thick for only having him not quite two months.’
“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’ rights.”
Darks v. Jackson County, 601 S.W. 3d 247 (Mo. App. 2020).
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