Missouri ordered to pay out $700,000 to CO in discrimination case

Shelley Gray says she was retaliated against after raising concerns about the legality of a warden's order


By Kurt Erickson
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
        
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — A state appeals court has upheld another employee discrimination case against the Missouri Department of Corrections, potentially costing taxpayers more than $700,000.

The latest in a series of big ticket judgments against prison system administrators revolves around an employee's concern about an attempt to limit the use of family and medical leave by fellow workers.

Shelley Gray, who had worked at the Kansas City Reentry Center since 2000, was promoted to a captain in 2016.

Court records show she attended a meeting in 2017 with her supervisor in which the warden of the facility, Lily Angelo, directed the two "to figure out how to stop employees from using Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave."

"Gray believed this was an illegal directive and that FMLA leave was important because employees use it for medical conditions like diabetes, epilepsy, cancer, mental health issues, and to support family members with the same," Western District Appeals Court Judge Anthony Rex Gabbert wrote in a summary of the case.

After raising concerns about the warden's order, Gray was placed on a performance improvement plan.

Gray then filed a lawsuit alleging discrimination, retaliation and a hostile work environment. A lower court agreed and awarded her $300,000.

The lower court also approved attorney's fees worth more than $400,000, which the appeals court also upheld.

State payroll records show Gray is still employed by the Department of Corrections, earning about $35,000 annually.

Missouri taxpayers have been charged millions of dollars in recent years due to lawsuits by employees against the Department of Corrections and other state agencies.

In 2017, the total amount paid out of the state's legal expense fund was $25 million. Another $28 million was paid out in 2018, with the 2019 total at $24.2 million.

Employee problems at the Kansas City Reentry Center are not new.

In January 2020, for example, Missouri paid out more than $2 million to Richard Dixson, a white employee of the minimum security facility, who won the award after a jury agreed in 2017 he was subjected to racial discrimination and a hostile work environment.

His lawsuit said managers retaliated after Dixson complained.

The cost of lawsuits against the state has been an issue in recent years for state budget writers, who must set aside money for legal expenses rather than steer those dollars into schools, social services and other state programs.

Although the total payout was down for 2020 at $6.6 million it could skyrocket this year.

The state still hasn't paid out more than $114 million to 13,000 current and former correctional officers who won a class-action case in Cole County over unpaid overtime. The bill for that case has grown by at least $12 million while the state appeals.
    
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