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Baldridge v. Kansas City Public Schools

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Western District, Third Division

April 24, 2018

JOSEPH D. BALDRIDGE, Appellant-Respondent,
KANSAS CITY PUBLIC SCHOOLS, ET AL., Respondents-Appellants.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Jackson County, Missouri The Honorable Sandra Midkiff, Judge

          Before: Victor C. Howard, Presiding Judge, Cynthia L. Martin, Judge and Gary D. Witt, Judge.

          Gary D. Witt, Judge

         Joseph Baldridge ("Baldridge") appeals from the Jackson County Circuit Court's order granting Kansas City Public Schools' ("KCPS") Motion for a New Trial. KCPS cross-appeals the order of the trial court denying its Motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict ("JNOV"). We affirm in part and reverse in part.


         Baldridge is a C4-C6 quadriplegic[2] due to a car accident when he was sixteen years old in approximately 1976. He has no functional hand movement, limited upper body strength and use, and no use of his lower extremities. He has used a power wheel chair for mobility for over forty years and uses a customized splint on his arm for limited writing tasks. Baldridge has a bachelor's degree from University of Arizona, a master's degree in Arts and Teaching from Drake University, and a master's degree in Community Health from University of Missouri-Kansas City. Baldridge was hired by KCPS in 2002 to work as a counselor at an alternative school program for students who were suspended from classes for short or long-term periods. During Baldridge's first position with KCPS he worked in an alternative setting where he worked in a room with two co-employees that were available to assist him with tasks whenever it was necessary. When that program was discontinued, KCPS reassigned Baldridge to a traditional school guidance counselor position at James Elementary. Due to Baldridge's inability to scan, copy, and write, he was provided with a dedicated paraprofessional to assist him with tasks he could not perform due to his disability.

         Betty Hatcher ("Hatcher") replaced Baldridge's original dedicated paraprofessional in 2008. When Hatcher was assisting Baldridge she would retrieve disruptive or distressed students from classrooms, console them or escort them to the office to meet with Baldridge, review folders and ensure compliance with guidelines, help create the curriculum, set up a room for agitated students to come in and cool off, prepare materials for instruction, arrange lesson plans, take notes, write on whiteboards, and file. Hatcher also assisted Baldridge in attaching his arm brace at various times so he could eat and drink, administering personal medication, adjusting his chest brace, and at the end of each day securing him into his vehicle with a seatbelt and attaching a brace to his arm that allowed him to steer his vehicle. She did not counsel students and was not present during any of Baldridge's confidential counseling sessions with students. Hatcher had other duties outside of assisting Baldridge such as filling in for the school secretary on the secretary's lunch break and monitoring classrooms in case a teacher had to leave due to an emergency.

         In December 2012, Baldridge experienced a workplace injury which is not at issue in this case but did require him to be off of work for an extended period of time. In the summer of 2013, he was due to return to work for the 2013-2014 school year. He was advised by KCPS Employee and Labor Relations Specialist Marilyn Overton ("Overton") that KCPS was reviewing his accommodations and she needed him to complete some paperwork. Baldridge provided Overton information regarding his physical limitations. Baldridge also suggested that KCPS obtain a vocational assessment from the Rehabilitation Institute of Kansas City ("RIKC") to assist in evaluating alternative accommodations to meet his needs, which KCPS agreed to do.

         After reviewing Baldridge's current accommodations and learning the scope of Hatcher's duties, KCPS' Human Resources Director Mary Laffey ("Laffey"), KCPS' interim superintendent Al Tunis ("Tunis"), and Overton decided to withdraw the accommodation of Baldridge's dedicated paraprofessional. On October 2, 2013, Baldridge and Hatcher were called into a meeting with Overton, a representative for the teachers' union Andrea Flinders, Principal Jo Nemeth ("Nemeth"), and Assistant Superintendent of School Leadership Darrell Davis ("Davis"). Baldridge was told that his paraprofessional accommodation was being removed immediately and that other options would need to be explored, although those new accommodations had yet to be determined. He was placed on administrative leave with pay, effective immediately, and both Baldridge and Hatcher were ordered to pack up their belongings and leave school property. He also received a subsequent letter from KCPS that he was not to enter upon any KCPS properties or he would risk violating KCPS policy.

         Pending the vocational assessment at RIKC, Laffey identified a modified assignment at East High School for Baldridge that did not require the same clerical responsibilities as his previous position. She developed a plan with Baldridge for the spring semester so that he could return to work after the winter break. Baldridge accepted the new position. The position was not a counseling position but instead he was assigned to work with severely disabled students. When suggesting the position to Baldridge, Laffey stated that she thought the disabled children might be more comfortable with him due to his own disability. During his time at East High School, he was not included in any professional level development seminars or meetings, was isolated from the counseling department, and was not provided with any formal accommodations. He was also not included in an email regarding a professional development day scheduled for late January 2014. Due to not being informed that it was a professional development day, Baldridge waited outside the school in the cold for a significant period of time for someone to let him into the building. After a custodian let him into the building, Baldridge sat in his assigned classroom for several hours, where he was physically unable to obtain food or drink, remove his coat, or turn on the lights. Finally, he texted his supervisor indicating he needed someone to let him out of the building so that he could return home.

         On February 14, 2014, Erin Brown ("Brown") of RIKC conducted Baldridge's vocational assessment. Brown recommended the following list of accommodations to assist Baldridge in fulfilling his job duties:

a. Use of AudioNote iPad app, or another recording device for meetings if a note taker is unavailable.
b. Converting as much paper to electronic format to allow Mr. Baldridge independent access through a computer.
c. Placement in a school that does not require use of an elevator.
d. Use of a paraprofessional or administrative assistant to assist with the management of paper that can't be digitized, as well as being available to assist students to and from the classroom if an elevator is required. This position would not need to be full-time if other accommodations were met.
e. Use of headset or Bluetooth headset for phone conversations. Someone would need to be available to put the headset on at the start of the day and take it off at the end of the day.

         She also recommended a paraprofessional be available to assist him with some of his other job responsibilities.

         Following Brown's assessment, KCPS reassigned Baldridge to a school guidance counselor position at Phyllis Wheatley Elementary ("Wheatley") for the 2014-2015 school year. This remained his position at the time of trial. KCPS limited his initial assignment to students in classrooms on the same floor as Baldridge's office to avoid use of an elevator. KCPS also implemented a "team-approach" accommodation at Wheatley. Whenever Baldridge needed assistance he was told to contact the Principal, Jose Verduzco ("Verduzco"), who would send someone to assist Baldridge. However, when Baldridge would text or email Verduzco, Baldridge would be told that someone would come help him when they became available. Baldridge never knew which person would be sent to help him and was unsure how long he would have to wait to receive assistance. KCPS also routed Baldridge's computer to the main office printer so the staff there could retrieve printed materials for him.

         As a result of Baldridge's transfer to Wheatley, that school had more counselors than the applicable regulations required. This resulted in Baldridge sharing an office with Shirley Washington ("Washington"), another counselor at Wheatley. Over time, Washington voluntarily assumed some daily tasks assisting Baldridge in addition to her own responsibilities. However, KCPS instructed Washington that she could not assist Baldridge with getting into his vehicle and putting on his seatbelt because they were concerned about the potential risk of harm to Baldridge and the public. Baldridge also did not always have assistance in putting on his hand brace for eating, resulting in him sometimes skipping lunch or being only able to eat certain cold foods that he could eat without his brace. He was unable to open doors for himself, which required him to call ahead to the classroom or bang his wheelchair into the classroom door until someone opened the door.

         While at Wheatley, Baldridge made multiple unanswered requests for a Bluetooth headset to remedy the telephone issue. Baldridge did receive the software he requested but was not provided the training to utilize it. Overton stated at trial that a training date for the software was set up but Baldridge was absent under the Family Medical Leave Act ("FMLA") at the time it was offered. His position at Wheatley eventually required frequent use of an elevator as he was assigned children on other floors, and he often had to escort children in distress without assistance.

         During the time following Baldridge's workplace injury, he experienced additional unrelated absences. During the 2013-2014 school year, Baldridge missed approximately 15 days, excluding the time he was on paid administrative leave. During the 2014-2015 fall semester, Baldridge missed approximately 15 days. Baldridge missed all of the 2014-2015 spring semester except for the first two weeks. Baldridge missed approximately 58 days in the 2015-2016 school year. Many of the absences were approved under the FMLA or general leave of absence allowed under KCPS policy. KCPS never disciplined Baldridge for his absences.

         On June 12, 2014, Baldridge filed suit against KCPS, alleging disability discrimination under the Missouri Human Rights Act, section 213.010[3] et seq. ("MHRA") and seeking punitive damages. At the close of Baldridge's evidence, KCPS filed a motion for directed verdict. The trial court granted in part KCPS' motion for directed verdict by directing out the portion of Baldridge's claim based on the 2015 spring semester when he was unable to work and the portion of his punitive damages claim based on his period of paid administrative leave. At the close of all evidence KCPS filed another motion for directed verdict. The trial court sustained in part KCPS' second directed verdict motion by directing out the portion of Baldridge's claim based upon a dedicated paraprofessional or the removal of the dedicated paraprofessional as a reasonable accommodation.

         After the directed verdict rulings and during the jury instruction conference, KCPS offered limiting instructions pursuant to MAI 34.06 concerning the withdrawal of the claims regarding the dedicated paraprofessional in October 2013, Baldrige's period of paid administrative leave, and the 2015 spring semester when Baldridge was unable to work. The trial court accepted them as instruction numbers 10, 11, and 12 respectively. However, the next morning prior to closing arguments, the trial court reversed its ruling on issuing any formal, written withdrawal instructions to the jury. The trial court instead authorized counsel to argue the content of the rejected withdrawal instructions during closing arguments. Baldridge's counsel also argued during rebuttal, "[h]ow in the world are they going to - if they truly, sincerely and meaningfully want to figure out what he needs, do you send him home?" After objection to this argument by KCPS, the trial court then gave an oral instruction to the jury that "there is no claim in this case for damages based upon the plaintiff being placed on paid administrative leave or a claim for damages for the time he was off work and on paid administrative leave."

         Also at the instruction conference, the trial court prepared its own verdict director, which was instruction number six. [4] The trial court's verdict director was based on a claim of hostile work environment rather than discrimination based on a failure to provide reasonable accommodation as requested by Baldridge. Both parties objected to the court's proposed verdict director. KCPS objected because it wanted the third element of the hostile work environment claim to reflect the language in Fuchs v. Department of Revenue, 447 S.W.3d 727, 733 (Mo. App. W.D. 2014). Baldridge objected because "this is not a hostile work environment-type case in the way that the case has been traditionally presented" and "the verdict director imposes too high of a threshold on the plaintiff." Baldridge further argued that the "severe and pervasive language that is more appropriate in a harassment-type case rather than a discrimination case based on the failure to accommodate." The trial judge then asked "so everybody except me is objecting to the verdict director; is that right?" The trial judge then stated "Me against all yous [sic]. All right. Your objections are all noted and overruled." The jury was presented with the verdict director as drafted by the trial judge.

         The jury found in favor of Baldridge and awarded $230, 000 in compensatory damages and $576, 075 in punitive damages. On June 10, 2016 KCPS filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding verdict ("JNOV") or, in the alternative, motion for new trial or remittitur with suggestion in support. The trial court granted KCPS' motion in part by awarding a new trial. The trial court's grounds for granting the new trial, as set forth in the trial court's order, were that it erroneously allowed Baldridge to present evidence regarding the removal of the dedicated paraprofessional, it erroneously allowed Baldridge to present evidence of several actions on the part of KCPS which did not legally constitute unlawful or unreasonable lack of accommodation, it erroneously allowed Baldridge's claim of failure to provide accommodations for eating and drinking assistance as proof of hostility and cruelty, the evidence did not support submission of a punitive damage claim, and the court erroneously failed to allow the withdrawal instructions submitted by KCPS relating to the claims involving the withdrawal of the dedicated paraprofessional accommodation and paid administrative leave. The trial court denied all other forms of relief requested by KCPS. This timely appeal followed with cross appeals by both parties.

         I. Baldridge's Appeal

         Baldridge raises three points on appeal. In Baldridge's first point on appeal, he argues that the trial court erred in ordering a new trial on the basis that it was error to allow the previously provided disability accommodations into evidence because regulations under the MHRA[5] provide that prior accommodations should be considered in determining the reasonableness of current accommodations and hostile work environment claims require the jury to consider the totality of the evidence, including all conduct of the employer, whether or not the conduct involves the provision or deprivation of a reasonable accommodation. In Baldridge's second point on appeal, he argues that the trial court erred in ordering a new trial on the basis that Baldridge failed to make a submissible case for punitive damages because the remedy for failure to make a submissible case for punitive damages is not to grant a new trial. In Baldridge's third point on appeal, he argues that the trial court erred in ordering a new trial on the basis that it was error not to have allowed KCPS' withdrawal instructions on the withdrawal of Baldridge's prior accommodations and his placement on administrative leave because the instructions misstated the law and failure to allow the instructions did not result in prejudice.

         Standard of Review

         "A trial court has great discretion in determining whether to grant a new trial." Duckett v. Troester, 996 S.W.2d 641, 646 (Mo. App. W.D. 1999) (overruled on other grounds by Spiece v. Garland, 197 S.W.3d 594 (Mo. banc 2006)). "Its decision is presumed to be correct and will be reversed on appeal only for an abuse of discretion." Id. "An abuse of discretion occurs where the trial court's ruling is so arbitrary and unreasonable as to shock one's sense of justice and indicate a lack of careful consideration." Id. "It cannot be said that the trial court abused its discretion where reasonable persons could differ over the propriety of its ruling." Id. (quoting McGraw v. Andes, 978 S.W.2d 794, 801 (Mo. App. W.D. 1998)). "Appellate courts should be more liberal in upholding a grant of a new trial than in awarding a new trial when the trial court denies the motion." Nadolski v. Ahmed, 142 S.W.3d 755, 764 (Mo. App. W.D. 2004)(internal citations and quotation marks omitted). However, the granting of a motion for a new trial can be an abuse of discretion where it is based on findings that are not substantially supported by the record. Duckett, 996 S.W.2d at 646.

         "In order for the trial court to grant a motion for a new trial, the error complained of as a basis for the motion must be prejudicial to the party seeking the new trial." Balke v. Cent. Mo. Elec. Coop., 966 S.W.2d 15, 25 (Mo. App. W.D. 1997). A new trial is available only upon a "showing that trial error or misconduct of the prevailing party incited prejudice in the jury." Kan. City v. Keene Corp., 855 S.W.2d 360, 372 (Mo. banc 1993).

         The trial court's broad discretion when ruling on a motion for a new trial applies to fact questions, not questions of law, and the burden is on the appellant to prove that the trial court abused its discretion when it granted the motion for a new trial for the stated reasons. Koppe v. Campbell, 318 S.W.3d 233, 240 (Mo. App. W.D. 2010) (citation omitted). "On appeal from an order granting a new trial for a specific reason the burden is on appellant to show that the court erred in sustaining the motion upon the ground specified." Anderson v. Osmon, 217 S.W.3d 375, 378 (Mo. App. W.D. 2007) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). When the trial court assigns several grounds for the grant of a new trial, the action must be upheld on appeal if any one of the grounds is valid. ...

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