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Court upholds ruling in prison employee’s retaliation case

A Missouri state appeals court in September upheld a lower court’s decision, affirming that the state most pay $700,000 to a Department of Corrections employee and her attorneys in a workplace retaliation case.

Shelley Gray, a prison corrections officer for two decades, expressed concern in 2017 after the warden at the Kansas City Reentry Center sought ways to prevent employees from using the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Her concerns then led to her employer to punish her unfairly and illegally.

Placed on performance improvement plan

Gray – by now promoted to captain – felt that such a maneuver was illegal as the FMLA allows employees to annually take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for family- and medical related emergencies. She knew the importance of the federal act as prison employees have relied on it when faced with cancer, diabetes and mental health issues as well as to support family members.

Within two months after complaining to superiors and human resources regarding the warden’s directive, Gray was placed on a job performance improvement plan.

Soon after, Gray filed a lawsuit seeking damages for sexual and racial discrimination, illegal retaliation and a hostile work environment. After a December 2019 trial, a jury found in her favor regarding the retaliation and hostile work environment claims, awarding her $300,000 in damages. In addition, the court awarded Gray’s attorneys fees of nearly $469,000.

Employers must follow the law

Employment retaliation cases are costly to everyone involved. In this case, Missouri taxpayers may be on the hook for $700,000. Employers must treat all their employees fairly and abide be federal laws that protect employees.