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Recent Missouri Employment Law Decision

In January 2011, the Supreme Court of Missouri handed down an opinion in Howard v. City of Kansas City.  This opinion holds that municipal judges of the City of Kansas City are employees as defined by the Missouri Human Rights Act (“MHRA”) and that municipalities are subject to punitive damages for claims made under the MHRA.

 The suit in Howard was brought when the City Council rejected two panels of judicial applicants.  Both panels contained the same three white females.  In rejecting the panel, City Council members acknowledged the women were qualified, but complained of a lack of racial diversity on the panel itself.  Melissa Howard, a member of the rejected panel, filed suit under the MHRA and a jury awarded her damages exceeding two million dollars.

 Two of the issues reached on appeal were whether municipal judges are employees as contemplated by the MHRA and whether punitive damages can be awarded against a municipality.

 The MHRA does not define the term “employee.”  On appeal, the City argued that municipal judges were public officials and not employees or employment applicants.  Because the Act failed to define employee, the Court applied the normal dictionary definition of the term and found that the plaintiff was in fact protected by the Act.

 The City also argued that punitive damages could not be awarded against a municipality.  Generally, punitive damages cannot be awarded against a municipality because the purpose of punitive damages is to act as a future deterrent to the benefit of taxpayers.  In the instance of judgments against municipalities, punitive damages are ultimately paid by taxpayers and thus do not provide that benefit.  The plain language of the MHRA, however, allows damages against municipalities.  The Court affirmed the jury’s award of punitive damages. 

Cory Atkins joined Foland, Wickens, Eisfelder, Roper & Hofer in June 2010.  Prior to joining the firm, he served as a law clerk at the Supreme Court of Missouri and as member of the Appellate Division of the Missouri Attorney General’s Office.  He has handled over sixty appeals and currently has appellate matters pending in the Missouri Court of Appeals and the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.