Jury rules KCK government discriminated against Black firefighter, awards him $2.4M

A federal jury discovered that the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kansas, discriminated against a Black firefighter after which retaliated against him when it fired him for elevating complaints.

The 10-member jury returned a verdict in favor of former Kansas City, Kansas, Fire Department worker Jyan Harris on Thursday after deliberating for about eight hours. The jury awarded Harris $2,432,000, an quantity that represents again pay, future pay and compensatory damages for each his discrimination and retaliation claims.

“Hopefully now it shows them that you can’t do people like that,” Harris mentioned after the decision was learn. “You have to do your due diligence before you take somebody’s livelihood away, especially somebody who’s giving you their livelihood.”

The verdict caps off greater than three years of litigation after Harris filed his lawsuit in 2018. The Unified Government had accused Harris of double dipping when he submitted time sheets for seasonal work he did at summer season youth camps for its parks and recreation division whereas he was scheduled to work for the fireplace division.

But Harris’ attorneys — Katherine Myers and Sarah Liesen — succeeded in convincing the jury that the double-dipping investigation was a pretext for firing their consumer after he raised complaints about racial discrimination he confronted whereas working within the KCKFD.

“Discrimination and retaliation are insidious. Usually it’s not a, quote unquote, smoking gun,” Myers mentioned. “Usually it’s a combination of circumstances and things.”

The trial, which lasted for 9 days and went to the jury on Tuesday afternoon, produced a number of witnesses who testified about situations of racial points within the KCKFD.

Witnesses testified and proof appeared to assist that Black firefighters have been regularly moved into one hearth station, that they have been usually handed over for promotions and weren’t actively recruited to work for a predominantly white hearth division serving a racially numerous metropolis.

Former Mayor Mark Holland testified that former KCKFD chief John Paul Jones as soon as remarked to him about the way it was troublesome to rent Black firefighters as a result of Jones believed Black individuals have been afraid of fireside. Jones, who left the division in 2018, denied making the comment. One Black firefighter, a Unified Government doc mirrored, was disciplined for making a criticism exterior of the chain of command concerning the presence of a noose in a hearth station.

The Unified Government, in an announcement, acknowledged the trial “surfaced other underlying and unacceptable issues within the culture of our fire department that are critical to address.”

“While we support an inclusive fire department, this case has highlighted concerns among some of our personnel that we have more work to do,” mentioned Doug Bach, Unified Government administrator, in a written assertion. “Our firefighters are on the front lines of our public safety and, in 2021, no one should feel unwelcome or wronged while on the job. Consequently, we are taking swift and decisive action to ensure that no one, no matter their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or religion, feels mistreated or disadvantaged within our workplace.”

During his closing argument, Ryan Denk, legal professional representing the Unified Government, pressed jurors to think about whether or not these tales of racial points supported Harris’ claims of race discrimination.

“This is where the plaintiff bears the burden of proof,” Denk mentioned. “I contend they have fallen short of that.”

The jury appeared to have disagreed.

“The verdict speaks for itself,” mentioned Mike Telthorst, one of many jurors as he ready to go away the courthouse.

The trial was filled with conflicting testimony. There have been conferences which will or might not have occurred. Records which will or might not have existed. Statements which will or might not have been spoken.

The case seemingly hinged on who the jury finally trusted was telling the reality about what transpired with Harris throughout his final 12 months of working as a firefighter.

‘Up to and including termination’

Harris began working as a firefighter in 2004, after a stint working with the Wyandotte County Sheriff’s Office, which was preceded by army service. Harris testified that he joined the fireplace division as a continuation of his service to a group wherein he had lived all his life.

Harris’ lawsuit mentioned that he was injured on the job in 2013 and compelled to make use of sick and trip go away time whereas recovering, whereas white firefighters injured at work bought to make use of damage time.

Harris mentioned he met with Bach within the fall of 2015, together with influential pastor Rev. Jimmie Banks. According to Harris, he mentioned race discrimination in KCKFD.

While Bach acknowledged the assembly and mentioned that sick time was among the many points that have been talked about, he testified this week that he didn’t recall race developing within the dialog. In earlier testimony from a 2019 deposition, Bach mentioned it was “possible” that race was mentioned.

Around that very same time in 2015, the Kansas Department of Labor was investigating whether or not the Unified Government Parks and Recreation Department had misclassified staff for the summer season youth applications as impartial contractors when they need to have been staff.

Harris was a kind of staff.

Unified Government human sources director Renee Ramirez testified that she requested information from the parks division and KCKFD. When evaluating the 2, Ramirez concluded that Harris was working on the hearth division on 5 days in the course of the summer season of 2015 whereas additionally claiming fee for working on the parks division on the identical time.

In May 2016, she advisable Harris be disciplined “up to and including termination.”

Harris referred to as human sources on June 9, 2016, to complain about harassment he was dealing with. A gathering with human sources was scheduled for the following day, however then was canceled by human sources.

Harris then sought conferences with Holland, the Unified Government mayor on the time, and Bach.

Harris mentioned there was a gathering with Bach on June 30, 2016, the place his complaints of race discrimination have been mentioned. Bach testified that he didn’t recall the assembly.

But Harris did meet with Holland on July 7, 2016, the place he complained about race discrimination.

The following day, Bach wrote an e mail to Ramriez that, amongst different issues, talked about that Harris was complaining about race discrimination.

Per week later, Harris was referred to as to a gathering at City Hall with human sources. Harris testified that he thought the assembly was to listen to his complaints about harassment against him by his hearth division captain.

The assembly was attended by assistant Unified Government administrator Joe Connor, Ramirez, Harris and two deputy hearth chiefs, John Peterson and John Zimbelman, and Bob Wing, the union consultant for the fireplace division.

According to Connor’s account of the assembly, Harris was confronted by the discrepancies in his time sheets on the parks and hearth departments. Connor’s memo mentioned Harris didn’t dispute the accusations.

But Harris portrayed the assembly as an ambush and mentioned he tried to elucidate he had traded his shifts on the times in query.

Connor later wrote a memo to Jones, the fireplace chief on the time, giving him the advice to droop Harris, which occurred on Sept. 28, 2016.

By 2018, he was fired after an arbitrator upheld his suspension and his grievances have been exhausted. The jury was not instructed concerning the arbitrator’s determination as a result of U.S. District Court Judge Julie Robinson decided that the arbitrator didn’t overview a lot of the testimony and proof that was produced for the trial.

Shift buying and selling is widespread

Harris mentioned, like most firefighters, he traded shifts. That, from Harris’ standpoint, is what explains the Unified Government’s information that present him being in two locations directly in 2015.

The Unified Government’s investigation concluded that Harris was working shifts for the fireplace division on these 5 days in query in 2015. Daily rosters and log books seem to point he was at Fire Station No. 10.

Attorneys for Harris mentioned these information have been unreliable. Instead, Harris had traded these shifts to different firefighters so he might go work for the summer season camp for eight or 9 hours after which return to serve out the remainder of his 24-hour shift.

Time buying and selling is a standard and authorized observe in hearth departments, the place the bizarre nature of their shifts — usually 24 hours on responsibility, adopted by 48 hours off responsibility — necessitate some flexibility in shifting shifts round. An uncommon side of shift buying and selling in KCKFD is the one who is having a colleague cowl their shift continues to be paid as if they labored that shift, although another person did it. There could also be an expectation that the commerce is reciprocated, however it’s not required.

But Harris’ attorneys produced witnesses who testified that point buying and selling information have been poorly saved by KCKFD. The two firefighters making a commerce needed to signal a paper slip, which then needed to be signed by a captain, a battalion chief and a division chief for a complete of 5 signatures.

In Harris’ case, there are not any time buying and selling slips in existence that present he traded shifts away on these 5 days in the summertime of 2015.

But Harris, in addition to a number of different witnesses, reported a standard observe of station chiefs discarding time slips, notably for trades lasting just some hours.

One firefighter mentioned he averted buying and selling time altogether, saying the method at KCKFD was “not on the up and up.”

The paper slips the fireplace division used to trace trades have been later changed by an digital system.

There additionally have been annual attendance calendars for firefighters, however they weren’t reviewed within the Harris investigation.

“If this was you being investigated, would you have wanted someone to look at them?” Myers requested Connor.

“I suppose,” he replied.

‘I should be captain or better’

Testimony by Harris’ witnesses mirrored a hearth division the place Black staff are handled totally different and the place household connections to prime Unified Government personnel and elected officers have insulated KCKFD from accountability.

Terry Allen, a Black longtime firefighter, wept on the stand as he recalled how he was handed up for promotion from firefighter to driver in 2011 and 2017 after he handed the required checks.

Allen did lastly get his promotion final 12 months.

“And now that I’m in that position, all these guys are now telling me I should have been a driver years ago and I shouldn’t be in this position as a driver” now, Allen mentioned. “I should be a captain or better.”

Lee Jamahl Washington, one other Black firefighter, testified about how he was referred to as to headquarters and instructed to delete a Facebook publish wherein he referenced his opinion about police brutality against Black males.

Several firefighters mentioned how Fire Station No. 10, a hearth station close to Rosedale, was the place Black firefighters have been usually despatched.

Holland, the previous mayor, testified that KCKFD, notably by way of its union, influences metropolis politics, the place each elected and prime metropolis officers usually have household who work for the fireplace division. Holland identified the husband of Renee Ramirez, the human sources director, works for KCKFD.

“The fire department gets a pass because of the legacy this fire department has in Kansas City, Kansas,” Holland mentioned.

Bach, in an announcement, mentioned the Unified Government had “zero tolerance” for the claims raised within the trial.

“We are very concerned about the issues of bias and mistreatment our Black firefighters raised in testimony,” he mentioned, “and will be working to address it immediately.”

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