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Dixson v. Missouri Department of Corrections

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Western District, First Division

July 23, 2019

RICHARD DIXSON, Respondent,
v.
MISSOURI DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, Appellant.

          APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF JACKSON COUNTY The Honorable Justine E. Del Muro, Judge.

          Before Victor C. Howard, Presiding Judge, Lisa White Hardwick and Gary D. Witt, Judges.

          Lisa White Hardwick, Judge.

         The Missouri Department of Corrections ("DOC") appeals the judgment following a jury verdict against it and in favor of Richard Dixson on his retaliation claim under the Missouri Human Rights Act ("MHRA"). The jury awarded Dixson $280, 000 in actual damages and $1.2 million in punitive damages. On appeal, the DOC contends the circuit court erred in failing to reduce the punitive damages award by applying a credit for punitive damages awarded in a prior case and a statutory cap on damages. The DOC further argues that the court erred in denying its motion for a new trial due to a biased juror; allowing portions of an inadmissible investigative report to be read into evidence; and in allowing four "me too" witnesses to testify. For reasons explained herein, we find no error and affirm.

         Factual and Procedural History

         Richard Dixson has been employed by the DOC since 1995 and has worked at its Kansas City Reentry Center ("KCRC") since 1998. Lilly Angelo was the warden at the KCRC from 2013 through 2017.

         When Dixson first started working for the DOC, he was a Corrections Officer 1, or prison guard. He was promoted to Corrections Classifications Assistant, a position that helped offenders find jobs, complete job applications, and operate in the community. Eventually, his position was reclassified to Reentry Activity Coordinator, for which he continued to work closely with offenders to help them successfully reintegrate into society.

         For several years prior to 2014, Dixson served as a union steward. As a union steward, he "represented other employees and stuck up for them and went to bat for their rights." Through this position, he became very familiar with DOC policies and procedures.

         In June 2014, Dixson filed a hostile work environment complaint alleging that Angelo was nitpicking and harassing him regarding how he was carrying his pepper spray and his two-way radio. According to Dixson, Angelo told him it was mandatory that he carry his pepper spray and radio on his belt, but Dixson knew the policy did not require that, and he believed that it would be easier for him to access his pepper spray and radio if they were not attached to his belt. Dixson's complaint was returned for "supervisory action," but he did not believe that he would get a fair investigation. He filed a grievance and was eventually able to get Angelo's directive regarding how employees were to carry their pepper spray and radios overturned. Dixson reasonably and in good faith believed that Angelo's nitpicking and harassing him was based on his race. Dixson is Caucasian, and Angelo is African-American.

         Six months after Dixson filed the grievance, Angelo began retaliating against him. She took away IT duties that Dixson had been performing for KCRC since the early 2000s, when the warden of KCRC at that time asked Dixson to be KCRC's contact person for IT duties. Dixson's IT duties included connecting and maintaining programmable phones, computers, printers, monitors, and copy machines. He "took pride" in his IT duties. Dixson was not told why Angelo took away his duties. Later, Bryant Holmes, one of the deputy wardens at KCRC, told Dixson that Angelo took away his IT duties because she "couldn't stand [him] and that she would do anything to [him] to make [his] job hell." Additionally, Dixson later heard that Angelo told several people in management that she took away his IT duties because she had a "reasonable suspicion" that he had deleted video footage off of the DVR system. Dixson denied deleting any video footage. Dixson believed his reputation in the DOC suffered as a result of what Angelo falsely said about him.

         Angelo also sabotaged Dixson's opportunity to reclassify his position to one at a higher pay level. Because he believed that he was performing the duties of a higher position, Dixson completed a form requesting to be paid at the higher level. Dixson's immediate supervisor signed off on the form, agreeing that his position should be reclassified. Instead of sending that form to the Office of Administration, however, Angelo, without telling Dixson, sent a different form that did not show that his immediate supervisor agreed with his reclassification request. Dixson did not get the reclassification.

         Dixson's complaints of retaliation also included Angelo's denying him flex time. After he suffered an injury, he asked for flex time to go to doctor's appointments. Angelo denied his request several times. Dixson filed a grievance, and his request for flex time was eventually granted by Dave Dormire, the Director of Adult Institutions. Dixson also asked for flex time to take his son to baseball practice. Angelo denied his request, even though at least five or six other employees were on a flex time schedule at the time. Dixson filed a grievance and was granted 45 days of flex time.

         According to Dixson, the treatment he received at work "severely" affected him and made him feel belittled, angry, agitated, and bad. He could not sleep well at night, had blood clots, and was scared to go to work.

         In August 2016, Dixson filed a petition for damages in which he alleged that the DOC violated the MHRA. In his petition, Dixson asserted claims of race discrimination, hostile work environment, and retaliation. A jury trial was held in December 2017. Several of Dixson's co-workers offered testimony corroborating Dixson's account of his experiences at KCRC. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Dixson on his retaliation claim and in favor of the DOC on his race discrimination and hostile work environment claims.[1] The jury awarded Dixson $280, 000 in actual damages and $1.2 million in punitive damages. The DOC appeals.[2]Additional facts will be discussed where relevant to the DOC's points on appeal.

         Analysis

         In Point I, the DOC contends the circuit court erred in failing to reduce the punitive damages award by applying a credit pursuant to Section 510.263.4[3] for punitive damages awarded in a prior case, Hesse v. Missouri Department of Corrections, Jackson County Circuit Court Case No. 1416-CV07836.

         The determination of whether the DOC is entitled to a credit under Section 510.263.4 presents a mixed question of fact and law, as the circuit court was required to assess the facts to determine whether the statutory credit applied. When reviewing mixed questions of fact and law, we defer to the circuit court in its assessment of the facts and then apply de novo review in determining how the law applies to those facts. Rhea v. Sapp, 463 S.W.3d 370, 375 (Mo. App. 2015).

         Section 510.263.4 allows a defendant to request a credit against a punitive damages award for amounts previously paid for punitive damages arising out of the same conduct. The statute states, in pertinent part:

Within the time for filing a motion for new trial, a defendant may file a post-trial motion requesting the amount awarded by the jury as punitive damages be credited by the court with amounts previously paid by the defendant for punitive damages arising out of the same conduct on which the imposition of punitive damages is based. At any hearing, the burden on all issues relating to such a credit shall be on the defendant and either party may introduce relevant evidence on such motion. Such a motion shall be determined by the trial court within the time and according to procedures applicable to motions for new trial. If the trial court sustains such a motion the trial court shall credit the jury award of punitive damages by the amount found by the trial court to have been previously paid by the defendant arising out of the same conduct and enter judgment accordingly. If the defendant fails to establish entitlement to a credit under the provisions of this section, or the trial court finds from the evidence that the defendant's conduct out of which the prior punitive damages award arose was not the same conduct on which the imposition of punitive damages is based in the pending action, or the trial court finds the defendant unreasonably continued the conduct after acquiring actual knowledge of the dangerous nature of such conduct, the trial court shall disallow such credit[.]

§ 510.263.4. After the defendant files a motion requesting credit, the court may, but is not required to, hold a hearing. Id. The defendant has the burden to establish that it is entitled to a credit. Id.

         In its post-trial motion, the DOC requested that the court credit the $1.2 million punitive damages award in this case with $1 million in punitive damages that were awarded in January 2016 to Debra Hesse on her sexual harassment and retaliation claims against the DOC. The DOC argued that Dixson "relied heavily" on the similarities between the Hesse verdict and this case to support his claims and that Hesse's claims "arose out of the same course of conduct" as the conduct alleged in this case. The circuit court denied the DOC's motion without granting a hearing.

         On appeal, the DOC asserts that it is entitled to a credit under Section 510.263.4 because the punitive damages award in Hesse involved the same course of conduct, the same facility, and the same count of retaliation as in this case. The DOC argues that, throughout the trial in this case, Dixson was allowed to present evidence concerning the Hesse verdict and its aftermath; therefore, the punitive damages award in this case ...


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