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Minze v. Missouri Department of Public Safety

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Western District, Fourth Division

December 5, 2017

STACY SKILES MINZE, Appellant,
v.
MISSOURI DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC SAFETY, Respondent.

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cole County, Missouri The Honorable Daniel R. Green, Judge.

          Before Mark D. Pfeiffer, Chief Judge, and James Edward Welsh and Gary D. Witt, Judges.

          Mark D. Pfeiffer, Chief Judge.

         Ms. Stacy S. Minze ("Minze") appeals from the judgment entered by the Circuit Court of Cole County, Missouri ("trial court"), after a jury verdict on retrial after remand, in favor of the Missouri Department of Public Safety ("Department") on Minze's petition for retaliation under the Missouri Human Rights Act ("MHRA"). Minze asserts that the trial court: (1) erred in admitting evidence and permitting the Department to use that evidence to impeach her; (2) erred in overruling her objections to the Department's closing argument; and (3) lacked jurisdiction to hear retrial of the case. We affirm.

         Factual and Procedural History[1]

         On June 22, 2009, Minze filed a petition against the Department, the Missouri Capitol Police Department, and Todd Hurt, individually and in his official capacity as Chief of the Missouri Capitol Police, alleging that while employed as a Capitol Police Officer, she was subjected to unlawful discrimination based on sex (Count I) and retaliation in violation of the MHRA (Count II). A jury trial was conducted on August 21, 2012. The jury returned a verdict for the Department, the Missouri Capitol Police, and Todd Hurt on Minze's sex discrimination claim (Count I) and for Minze against the Department on Minze's unlawful retaliation claim (Count II). The jury awarded her $70, 000 in actual damages and $70, 000 in punitive damages. The trial court entered judgment for Minze and against the Department in the total amount of $500, 113.42, which included $360, 113.42 for attorney's fees and costs. The Department appealed. On April 8, 2014, this court issued its opinion, reversing the trial court's judgment due to instructional error and remanding the case for a new trial. Minze v. Mo. Dep't of Pub. Safety, 437 S.W.3d 271 (Mo. App. W.D. 2014) ("Minze I").

         Upon remand, Minze amended her pleadings as to the retaliation claim against the Department and the case was again tried to a jury, which returned a unanimous verdict for the Department. The trial court entered judgment on the jury's verdict in favor of the Department. Minze's motion for new trial was overruled by operation of Rule 78.06.

         Minze timely appealed.

         Point I - Admission of Evidence and Cross-Examination

         In Minze's first point, she asserts that the trial court erred in admitting into evidence "superseded pleadings, "[2] including the Charge of Discrimination ("Charge") that was attached as an exhibit to her original petition, and in permitting the Charge to be used during her cross-examination to impeach her.

         Standard of Review

         "[T]he admissibility of evidence lies within the sound discretion of the trial court, including the introduction of evidence for the purposes of impeachment." Litton v. Kornbrust, 85 S.W.3d 110, 113 (Mo. App. W.D. 2002) (internal citation omitted) (internal quotation omitted). Furthermore, "the extent and scope of cross-examination in a civil action is within the discretion of the trial court and will not be disturbed unless an abuse of discretion is clearly shown." Id. (internal quotation omitted). A trial court abuses its discretion if its ruling is clearly against the logic of the circumstances and is so unreasonable and arbitrary that it shocks the sense of justice and indicates a lack of careful, deliberate consideration. Id.

         Analysis

         Simply put, this is not a "superseded pleading" case but is, instead, use of evidence demonstrating that Minze had previously made statements that were inconsistent in a material way with Minze's trial testimony. Minze's claim on appeal fails.

         A pleading has been defined as "any complaint, answer, reply, application, protest, petition for review, or motion." Moxness v. Hart, 131 S.W.3d 441, 446 (Mo. App. W.D. 2004). See also Rule 55.01.[3] Suggestions in support of motions have also been denominated pleadings. Id. at 447. Pleadings have similarly been described as the "'formal allegations by the parties to a lawsuit of their respective claims and defenses, with the intended purpose being to provide notice of what is to be expected at trial.'" Gerlach v. Mo. Comm'n on Human Rights, 980 S.W.2d 589, 591 (Mo. App. E.D. 1998) (quoting Black's Law Dictionary 1152 (6th ed. 1990)).

         Here, the Charge that was attached as an exhibit to a pleading, while forming part of the statutory prerequisite to Minze's MHRA action, see Daffron v. McDonnell Douglas Corp., 874 S.W.2d 482, 484 (Mo. App. E.D. 1994), [4] is not itself a pleading in the present discrimination lawsuit.[5] Hence, Minze's claim that the trial court committed error by permitting the introduction of "superseded pleadings" is without merit.

         Instead, the trial court properly permitted the Charge to be used by the Department as impeachment evidence. Cross-examination of a witness on the stand for the purpose of impeaching that witness has long been permitted in Missouri, "subject to the trial court's discretion in limiting or, in rare instances, precluding such evidence entirely so as to avoid undue prejudice." Mitchell v. Kardesch, 313 S.W.3d 667, 676 (Mo. banc 2010). "Missouri similarly permits cross-examination where the witness's testimony at trial is inconsistent with a prior statement, but here the cases generally require the prior statement to be about a material issue." Id. Materiality is broadly defined to include statements affecting credibility. Id. Furthermore, a party may impeach or contradict a witness on matters brought out on direct examination. Maugh v. Chrysler Corp., 818 S.W.2d 658, 661 (Mo. App. W.D. 1991). "Broadly speaking, any statement of a witness inconsistent with his testimony should be admitted to discredit or impeach him, whether made in or out of court." Neavill v. Klemp, 427 S.W.2d 446, 448 (Mo. 1968) (internal quotation omitted).

         On direct examination, Minze testified that she received a letter from the Department, Missouri Capitol Police, dated March 4, 2008, signed by Chief Hurt, which informed her that upon expiration of her FMLA entitlement, the approval of her claim for long-term disability benefits, and in the interest of having her position filled, she was considered to have resigned in good standing from her position as Capitol Police lieutenant. Within a day or two after receiving the letter, Minze went to the Capitol Police office to clean out her office. She testified that she met with Chief Hurt and asked him if she could have her leave extended until she could come back to work full duty, but he refused to keep Minze's position open. Minze testified that Chief Hurt's denial of her request to remain on unpaid leave in lieu of termination was one of four acts of retaliation in response to her sex discrimination claim against the Department.

         On cross-examination, counsel for the Department asked Minze whether Chief Hurt's statement to her that he was not going to grant her any additional unpaid leave was significant with regard to her retaliation claim; Minze replied that it was. Counsel for the Department then questioned Minze about the Charge she filed. In the Charge, Minze alleged that the Department and the Missouri Capitol Police discriminated against her based on her sex and disability and in retaliation for her having filed a formal grievance with the Director of the Department. By way of example, she described in detail eleven "specific acts of discrimination." Not included in the Charge was her allegation that Chief Hurt denied Minze's request that her leave be extended until she could come back to work full duty. Counsel for the Department cross-examined Minze about the Charge she filed:

Q: . . . And it's pretty detailed. It talks a lot about your issues with Chief Hurt. Correct?
A: Yes.
. . . .
Q: Now, this document doesn't contain anything about asking Chief Hurt for additional leave when you . . . went in to clean out your office. Right?
A: No.
Q: But that's one of your four major acts of retaliation that you're ...

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