A 41 Action News investigation recently uncovered dozens of employment discrimination lawsuits filed against metro school districts over the last 10 years, including more than 45 against Kansas City Public Schools.
The investigation shined a light on Missouri’s anti-discrimination laws, which some in the metro school community believe can make it easy for an employee to sue.
While the current laws help bring important justice to some cases, the amount of lawsuits has a big impact on taxpayers and classrooms in the state.
“It's just a cost of doing business and it's a very high cost of doing business in Missouri," explained attorney Joe Hatley, who does legal work for school districts like Lee’s Summit, Park Hill, and St. Joseph. “It's so easy for someone to make a stray comment here or there and that be turned into some evidence of bias. With a low Missouri standard, you can get a jury to tie those together."
In an interview with 41 Action News, Hatley explained how current laws in Missouri can end up leading to school districts having to settle on “weak” cases.
Missouri, which requires a lower burden of proof for plaintiffs of discrimination cases than other states, ends up seeing a high number of lawsuits against school districts.
“They are easy to win in Missouri, compared to federal law,” Hatley said.
Over the last 10 years, almost a dozen Missouri metro school districts have seen at least a combined 80 employment discrimination lawsuits filed against them.
Hatley told 41 Action News that other states, like Kansas, have anti-discrimination laws more in line with federal standards.
As a result, those states deal with far less discrimination lawsuits against school districts.
“You can have a case in Missouri that's very weak and it probably wouldn't even be brought if the same conduct happened five miles to the west in Kansas,” explained Hatley. “Their (Kansas) state laws are very employer friendly, so most of those cases get brought in federal court. They apply to federal laws, but the federal laws have a high standard of proof."
The investigation conducted by 41 Action News supported Hatley’s claim.
While Missouri metro school districts saw at least 80 employment discrimination lawsuits filed against them over the last 10 years, Kansas metro area schools saw just three.
“We deal with lawsuits monthly," explained Lee’s Summit Board of Education member Bill Baird. “I can't say we spend a ton of time on it, but we do spend money."
The high cost of taking on multiple employment discrimination lawsuits ends up having an impact on taxpayers and classrooms.
Legal fees often involve thousands of dollars being spent on a single case, when that money would otherwise would go towards education.
“When we're in trial, we're spending 12-14 hour days, usually two or three people. The bills add up,” explained Hatley. “If you have to spend $100,000 on legal fees to defend some of these cases, that's $100,000 not available to go in the classroom."
An examination of specific cases shows just how costly lawsuits can be for a school district.
In 2014, a secretary filed an employment discrimination lawsuit against Kansas City Public Schools after claiming she was the target of harassment and retaliation by other staff members.
According to court documents, a court later awarded $748,058.64 in damages and legal fees to the secretary in 2016.
Based on Kansas City Public Schools enrollment numbers, the money from the lawsuit win was equal to around $51 per student.
Another employment discrimination suit, filed against the Hickman Mills School District in 2015, came from a former principal in the district.
The principal alleged that after his contract was “wrongfully terminated”, a younger, “less qualified” candidate replaced him.
A jury sided with the former principal, awarding him around $750,000.
With 6,380 students enrolled in the Hickman Mills School District, the payout was equal to around $117.55 per student.
As schools around the country continue to deal with shrinking budgets, Hatley said the large payouts in the discrimination cases meant big losses for school districts.
“I like to say $50,000 a year equals a teacher,” he explained. “If a case costs you $150,000, that's three teachers you could have had in your classroom that year.”
Baird told 41 Action News that because of the high risk of having to pay a large sum of money should a school district lose a lawsuit case, it’s often better for a district to settle.
“Do we fight for what's right? Or do we settle based on the fact that you're going to spend a lot of money?” he said. “You try to find win/wins, but at the same time, as board members, we have to protect our taxpayers’ dollar."
Even if a case is considered “weak”, Hatley explained that simply fighting the case can prove to be costly.
“It does drain money away,” he said. “It's not just the risk of going to trial and losing, it's the cost of getting that result even if you win."
Missouri’s anti-discrimination laws have served as one of the many topics being addressed during the 2017 General Assembly.
State Sen. Gary Romine (R- District 3) has sponsored Senate Bill 43, which aims to bring Missouri more in line with federal standards for discrimination laws.
The bill would put a $300,000 maximum cap on discrimination lawsuits against large school districts, and prohibit punitive damages against the state.
While the current laws help bring important justice in some cases, Hatley said Senate Bill 43 could bring much needed change to the state.
“We don't want people saying 'We're not going to hire African Americans here'. That's wrong,” he said. “I think what we need to have is a more sane system."
Senate Bill 43 has been discussed in committee by state leaders during this year’s session.
Sen. Romine said he expects the bill to possibly head to the senate floor by the end of February.
In the meantime, Hatley said school districts will continue dealing costly lawsuits against them.
“We just have to keep fighting these and dealing with them,” he explained. ”We’ll keep paying out more money than these cases are worth."