Jury awards former Mo. officer $7.5M in harassment suit
Former St. Louis officer claimed her supervising sergeant sexually harassed her — and that she suffered retaliation for complaining
By Robert Patrick
ST. LOUIS — A former St. Louis police officer who claimed her supervising sergeant sexually harassed her — and that she suffered retaliation for complaining — won a $7.5 million judgment Friday from a St. Louis Circuit Court jury.
"It's absolutely huge for this type of case," said John Eccher, one of the lawyers who represented Tanisha Ross-Paige, in an interview after the verdict.
Although jurors found in favor of the St. Louis Board of Police Commissioners on a discrimination claim, they awarded Ross-Paige $300,000 in compensatory damages and $7.2 million in punitive damages from the board for retaliation.
Eccher said he asked jurors to send a message with a verdict that was high enough that "everyone will take notice that retaliation and discrimination in the workplace ends today."
Another of her lawyers, Ryan Paulus, said the verdict may be the highest in Missouri for this type of case, although he estimated that it eventually would be reduced under the law to roughly $3 million, including legal expenses. The legal maximum could grow if the police board appeals, the lawyers added.
A police spokeswoman declined to comment, saying that is policy for ongoing litigation.
The verdict is against the police board, a state agency, based on allegations made before it turned over control of the police department to City Hall last year. Lawyers for the Missouri attorney general's office, which represented the board, did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Ross-Paige's original suit claimed her then-supervisor, Sgt. Steven Gori, created and distributed a mock "wanted" poster with her picture and comments about her body.
The flier read, "Subject wanted for having the baddest body in the St. Louis area," and "Use extreme caution when approaching this subject. Approach this subject from behind for your own safety."
The suit also claimed that Gori asked the married Ross-Paige to sit on his lap, take off her bullet-resistant vest so that he could "see what (she is) working with," and invited her to skinny-dip in his hot tub.
The suit claims that after she filed a complaint with the department in June 2011, Gori and then-Lt. Michael Deeba began assigning her to unfavorable shifts, evaluating her differently in performance reviews and denying her time off for training that was given to others.
Lawyer Jeremy Hollingshead said Deeba told others on two occasions that the complaint was frivolous and he wanted her transferred. She also was sent for remedial training.
Her lawsuit was filed Dec. 22, 2011, and on Jan. 4, 2012, she was injured by another canine officer's dog during a training exercise, lawyers said, permanently disabling her.
When her canine partner, Duncan, was retired, he was given to a groundskeeper rather than to her, which would be the usual policy, Hollingshead said.
Eccher said Gori denied creating the flier, and officers denied the other claims.
He speculated that jurors returned the large punitive damages verdict because Ross-Paige's lawyers repeatedly caught officers lying on the witness stand.
Ross-Paige joined the force in 2005 and the canine unit in September 2008.
Hollingshead said Ross-Paige, who wanted to be a police officer since she was 14, is still waiting for her disability and worker's compensation claims to be approved.
She moved to Baltimore out of fear of further retaliation, her lawyers said, and is now separated from her husband.
The lawyers said that before trial, they offered to settle the case, asking for either $250,000 or $100,000 plus the approval of her disability claim.
"Because this was never about money for her. This was about telling her story," Hollingshead said.
The lawyers for the police board refused to offer more than $80,000, he said.
Copyright 2014 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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