Judicial Short Circuit

Norman Ross started out at Kansas City Power & Light in 1979, never imagining that he would be stuck in an entry-level meter-reading job for 20 years, even after earning a college degree. Now the company may have to pay up for denying Ross promotions because he is black.

But the punitive damages will not hit KCPL as hard as the jury that heard the case in June intended; a federal judge determined in December that $1.5 million in punitive damages was too high under the U.S. Constitution. If KCPL chooses to hand over the money instead of appealing the case, Ross will walk away with $336,000, less than a quarter of the original award.

Ross sued for discrimination in U.S. District Court in June 1998 based on five promotions he failed to receive, and the company promoted him to a computer position less than six months later. But the new job came too late to convince a jury of the company’s good intentions. The jury awarded him the punitive damages and $16,000 in back pay in July 2000 (“Kansas City Power & White,” September 21).

Judge Otrie D. Smith expressed concern that the ratio of punitive to actual damages was too high. However, he reaffirmed the jury’s verdict and denied the company’s request for a new trial.

The judge wrote that the evidence created “the impression that the defendant passed over qualified black applicants from within the company in favor of hiring white applicants who had just graduated from college. There was also evidence of hostility on the defendant’s part toward considering or remedying complaints of discrimination.”

Ross says that he is concerned by what he calls “judicial activism” on the part of the judge, but he is willing to accept the lesser award if allowed to keep his job. KCPL higher-ups have hinted, through their lawyers, that they would prefer that Ross take his money and leave the company, Ross says.

“Naturally we’re disappointed with a jury’s [award] being modified by a judge, but we recognize that the law allows it to happen,” says Dennis Egan of the Popham Law Firm, one of the attorneys who represented Ross.

KCPL officials did not return calls to the Pitch, but Egan says KCPL lawyers have indicated they may appeal. In that case, Egan says, he will argue for reinstatement of the jury’s original award. Egan is also preparing a class-action discrimination lawsuit against KCPL with more than 50 minority and female employees.

Ross says if KCPL chooses to pay the judgment, he plans to use part of the money to earn a master’s degree in computer information systems.

“I am definitely ready to move forward. They just have to now step up to the plate. They’ve been dragging their feet the whole time,” Ross says of the company.

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