Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Trial date set for another Joplin R-8 Huff era million dollar lawsuit

At about the same time as Joplin R-8 officials were finalizing a $2.5 million settlement in the lawsuit with the P1 Group, the electrical contractor who worked on the high school construction project, a trial date was set for yet another seven-figure lawsuit against the district.

Jasper County Prosecuting Attorney Dean Dankelson hasn't been officially elected Division II judge yet (that will happen next Tuesday since he is unopposed), but online court records indicate the rookie judge will be the one who presides over former Joplin R-8 employee Kathy Dukes' lawsuit against the district, which is set for a four-day trial beginning September 19, 2017,

In Dukes' lawsuit, which was  filed February 10, 2015, she claims she was fired after reporting to human resources director Tina Smith (pictured) that her supervisor, Peter Coleman, was sexually harassing and stalking her.

Six days after she told Smith, the HR director  took decisive action, placing the alleged victim, Dukes, on paid administrative leave.

A month later, despite a notice that said Dukes' complaint had been confirmed, Smith pressured Dukes into quitting, holding the threat of a bad job reference over her head.

Smith and Superintendent C. J. Huff signed a document in which Dukes swore not to sue for sexual harassment in return for a "neutral job reference" and four weeks of severance pay.

Dukes, a utility worker, and Coleman, her supervisor, "began a relationship as a result of an indication by Mr. Coleman that he was separated from his wife and was going through a divorce," according to the petition.

Dukes discovered that Coleman was not getting divorced, so she ended the relationship and asked Coleman "not to communicate with her outside of work.

After the relationship ended, Dukes said, she "began to suffer from multiple incidents of stalking and harassment at the hands of Coleman where he would stalk her after hours and harass her while at work about who she was with and where she had been after working hours,":

Dukes claims that Coleman went "as far as harassing her present boyfriend by sending him letters with false negative information about the plaintiff in an effort to break up the relationship between the plaintiff and her present boyfriend."

After a fellow employee told her she should talk to someone about the harassment, Dukes scheduled an appointment with Smith on December 13, 2013.

During that interview, Dukes told her story and played recordings of the harassing calls from Coleman, according to the petition. Smith said she would begin an investigation.

Six days later, Dukes was placed on administrative leave for allegations of misconduct.

On Monday, January 13, 2014, during what is described as an "uncomfortable meeting" between Smith and Dukes, "Ms. Smith, by way of pressure and coercion, talked Ms. Dukes into signing a mutual separation agreement and release."

During the meeting, Smith asked Dukes if she had looked for work and "don't you think it would be best if you found another place to work," adding "no one wants to work with you any more."

Smith also gave Dukes a letter in which she said her investigation indicated Coleman had violated board policy. "An investigation of the grievance has been completed and the district finds adequate substantiation exists to support an infraction of board policy.

"At Joplin Schools, we are committed to providing a learning and working environment that is free from harassment and discrimination. All participants in the educational process are expected to follow policies and administrative procedures of the district. Subsequently, the district has responded with the appropriate actionable measures."

Dukes signed the "mutual separation agreement" in which she "hereby releases and forever discharges the Joplin Schools Board of Education, its employees, its affiliates and subsidiaries, together with their respective directors, officers, agents, employees, and board of director, from any and all claims or other causes of action she may have against them relating to or arising out of Doris Kathrine Dukes' employment with School, including, but not limited to any claim of sexual harassment, or hostile work environment, or retaliation related to filing sexual harassment complaints, or any other cause of action related to her employment or her separation of employment, Missouri Statutes or Federal Constitution.

"The Joplin Schools hereby agrees to accept her resignation and will provide a neutral letter of reference consistent with policy. As and for additional consideration, the Joplin Schools shall pay the amount of $2,820.80 representing four weeks' pay less all required withholdings.

"As and for additional consideration herein, Doris Kathrine Dukes, hereby voluntarily resigns from her employment with the Joplin Schools, effective this date, January 14, 2014."

Count I of the lawsuit alleges wrongful discharge and violation of public policy and asks for $1 million in punitive damages.

In the district's response to the lawsuit, lawyer Karl Blanchard asks that the lawsuit be dismissed because it "fails to state a cause of action" on which either relief or pnnitive damages can be awarded.

If the lawsuit is not dismissed, Blanchard says, the district is asking permission to have all of Dukes' last 20 years of work records provided.

During the week before the Dukes lawsuit was filed, Judge David Dally officially dismissed another lawsuit in which former custodial supervisor George Morris, who said he had been sexually harassed by buildings project director Mike Johnson, was fired. The amount the district had to pay to settle the lawsuit has not been revealed.

Johnson "retired" in September of this year, while Smith resigned effective June 24.

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