Lawyer Sarah Duggan’s quest to empower employees against bad bosses
Sarah Duggan started serving tables at a small dive pizza bar when she was 13 years old. She loved the work, and from a young age, she enjoyed working with people, even though a dive bar may not be the typical teenager’s first job.
Duggan worked in the service industry for 15 years, doing everything from washing dishes to managing a restaurant. She’s no stranger to the vulnerability of service workers, harassment, and hostile environments they’re often susceptible to.
Duggan wanted to help people, so she joined the police force in Kansas. She graduated at the top of her 223rd Basic Training Academy class at the Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center.
“I became a police officer in my 20s. That was the worst job I’ve ever had,” says Duggan.
Seeing injustices within the policing system from the inside inspired Duggan to return to school so she could eventually attend law school. Her thesis is on the topic of police reform.
“I went back to school because I knew that law school was on the horizon at some point, but I needed to get a bachelor’s degree first, and I didn’t have one. So while I was getting my bachelor’s degree, I was working at this motorcoach company, and my boss slapped me on the ass,” says Duggan. “After that, I went to the EEOC to file a complaint.”
Duggan had to navigate this workplace harassment without any legal counsel and quickly realized how victims are at a disadvantage navigating such a complex system alone.
Duggan explains the convoluted system for filing a complaint after an instance of workplace harassment, using a hypothetical example of someone fired after rejecting their boss’s sexual advances: “You have 180 days to go file a charge of discrimination. If you don’t do it within those 180 days, you don’t get to ever then after. After you file that charge, the Missouri Commission on Human Rights can investigate. They get an additional 180 days to do that. So now we’re looking at an entire year from that moment you were fired to the moment when the state will allow you to file a lawsuit. After the 180 days are up, typically, the Missouri Commission Human Rights gives you something called a right to sue. And that right to sue says you have to take this to court within 90 days. And so now you only have 90 days. And if you don’t do it within 90 days, you lose it. So, you have to get all that done within two years. And if you don’t get that whole process done within two years, you can’t ever do it.
Duggan says further that many people who need to consult a lawyer do not have access to one, and the process of looking for a lawyer can often retraumatize victims as they have to explain what happened to them numerous times over.
“I think that there has been for so long this gatekeeping that law that lawyers have done,” says Duggan. “When I was looking for an attorney, I had to fill out probably 15 pages for each attorney that I talked to and tell that story over and over and over again. And all I got back was just a line that said, we’re declining to represent you. And I just kept thinking to myself, like, what? Why? What have I done wrong here?”
Duggan ended up reaching out to the Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault, or MOCSA, for help.
“They set me up with an attorney who explained it to me,” says Duggan. “And I think the systemic issue is that, well, time is money for attorneys, right? So, it’s difficult to get somebody into an office because it’s not a 15-minute-long story. You’re talking to somebody who’s gone through trauma, and they want to tell you everything.”
Her life experiences motivated Duggan to become a lawyer so she could help people who need it and may not even realize they need it. Duggan graduated Cum Laude with her J.D. from UMKC’s School of Law in 2021.
“Just being a woman generally in the working field, I was just so over it. So, I was just fueled all through law school on spite,” says Duggan.
These days, in addition to practicing employment law at Krigel & Krigel Law Offices, Duggan offers pro bono talks at Rose Brooks domestic violence shelter about sex and race discrimination, and she offers one-on-one services to people who have experienced domestic assault and workplace harassment. She also volunteers with MOCSA as a hospital advocate to help raise awareness for at-risk individuals about how they can recognize the signs of abusive workplaces and relationships and what rights they have in pursuing legal action after an incident of abuse or harassment. Duggan is also on the board of the Bishop Sullivan Center, which feeds, clothes, and employs the houseless community.
Volunteerism has been important to Duggan at all stages of her career. Duggan graduated law school with the most pro bono hours of anyone in her graduating class and more than the entire previous semester combined, with a total of 1,164 hours volunteered. Those hours were spent at the Midwest Innocence Project working on Kevin Strickland’s case, representing indigent criminal defendants, and organizing Law School events to educate people on their constitutional rights and post-conviction success stories for the wrongfully incarcerated.
In many cases, people do not even realize they are in an abusive situation, whether that’s in a personal relationship or the workplace, Duggan says.
“A bad employer, we’ll call them the abuser. The abusers are so good at making people think that they have this gargantuan power that they don’t have,” says Duggan. “Employees are terrified when they call me because they’ve been told by their employers they are well connected and they’re some of the most powerful people ever. And I think I’ve seen that relate so much to romantic relationships, too.”
Though there are systemic barriers in place for those experiencing discrimination or harassment, Duggan believes that the work of individuals from the inside can change the system over time.
Other KC-based lawyers who Duggan says she has faith in to empathize with people and help rebuild the gatekept system from the inside include Yasmin Herdoiza (criminal defense), Claire Wyatt (prosecution), and Sarah Scott (employment discrimination).
In the near future, Duggan plans to expand her reach for education on discrimination in the workplace, especially to service industry workers, because it’s rampant. She wants to host more free educational events, to help people understand the power imbalances and the process of standing up for yourself and making HR work for you.
“My goal in lawyering is just to help people understand that they have power with their employers and that the law is not always going to be on their side, but the right attorney will fight for them to for it to be more on their side,” says Duggan.