The Tail That Wags the Dog: Missouri Appellate Court Allows $346,500.00 Attorney Fee Award For Recovery of $524.00 in Actual Damages

Employers defending against claims of discrimination or retaliation under the Missouri Human Rights Act (MHRA) are in a difficult position given that Missouri has the lowest burden of proof in the country for discrimination and retaliation claims; an employee’s protected status or activity need only “contribute” in some tiny way to an employer’s decision against them.  Further, an employee need not even prove the employer took an adverse action against them; as is required under Title VII – the federal law that prohibits employment discrimination and retaliation.  Finally, in an MHRA lawsuit, even if a Plaintiff wins on only a small fraction of their claims, Plaintiff is entitled to recover all of their attorneys’ fees.  The sometimes surprising result these rules can lead to was on full display in the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Western District’s decision in Walsh v. City of Kansas City.

Timothy Walsh worked as a repairman in the Kansas City Water Department.  One of his co-workers filed a complaint of discrimination with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claiming Walsh’s supervisor – Dan Crabtree – had made religiously offensive comments.  Walsh served as a witness in the City’s investigation of Crabtree and corroborated the claims that Crabtree had made such comments.  The City subsequently suspended Crabtree without pay for a week.  Thereafter, Walsh made numerous complaints that Crabtree was retaliating against him for his participation in the City’s investigation.  Ultimately, Walsh filed a lawsuit under the MHRA, alleging that the City was responsible for Crabtree’s retaliation.

Before the City even presented its case to a jury, the trial court entered judgment against the City on liability for two of the incidents Walsh claimed were retaliatory.  The trial court found that the City’s own punishment of Crabtree and its answers to certain allegations of the Petition was tantamount to an admission that Crabtree had retaliated against Walsh.  After a trial, the jury found that only two of the seven incidents described by Walsh were actually retaliatory.  It awarded Walsh only $524.00 in actual damages, and found Walsh had no emotional distress damages.  However, it awarded Walsh $75,000 in punitive damages.  Walsh’s attorney’s then requested attorney’s fees in the amount of $346,500.00.

Although the City appealed argued that neither the punitive damages nor the attorneys’ fee award was justified given the small recovery by Walsh, the appellate court allowed both the punitive damages and attorneys’ fee award to stand.  The decision reaffirmed that an employee’s activity need only be a “contributing factor” in a retaliation claim, and used the City’s own punishment of Crabtree against it in upholding the trial court’s pre-trial judgment of the City’s liability.  It also reiterated that Missouri does not follow federal law regarding attorneys’ fees, and found that Walsh was entitled to all of his attorneys’ fees despite having only prevailed on two of his seven arguments; and only in the amount of $524.00.  The Court specifically stated that “[i]n human rights cases, the amount of the verdict or judgment may have little bearing on the amount of attorneys’ fees.”

The Western District’s decision in Walsh is no surprise given the employee-friendly construction Missouri Courts have given the MHRA, but it is a stark reminder of the potential liability for employers in MHRA cases.  At the beginning of the case, Kansas City might reasonably (though incorrectly) have concluded that because Walsh suffered almost no actual or emotional distress damages, punitive and attorneys’ fee awards would be similarly small.  The Western District Court of Appeals decision explains in detail why such reasoning is fraught with peril in MHRA cases.

The St. Louis employment attorneys at McMahon Berger have been representing employers across the country in labor and employment matters, including all aspects of discrimination and harassment litigation, for nearly sixty years, and are available to discuss these issues and others.  As always, the foregoing is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice regarding any particular situation as every situation must be evaluated on its own facts. The choice of a lawyer is an important decision and should not be based solely on advertisements.

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