Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Rise and Fall of a Mayor: An Illustration of the Importance of the MHRA

This is the story of how one woman brave enough to fight with Missouri discrimination laws on her side kept her boss a one term mayor.  Ruth Bates filed a lawsuit for harassment, race discrimination and retaliation against her boss, the mayor of Kansas City, his wife and the city.  Without her courage and without the teeth of the Missouri Human Rights Act, Mayor Funkhouser probably would have been reelected, since every first term mayor in Kansas City has been reelected for the past 90 years or so.

The federal discrimination statute, Title VII, did not get teeth until 1991, when Congress amended the law to allow for jury trials and provided that a jury could award compensatory and punitive damages.  Missouri's human rights law got teeth in 2003, when the Missouri Supreme Court decided that Missouri employees had a constitutional right to a jury trial in discrimination cases.  State ex rel Diehl v. O'Malley, 95 S.W.3d 82 (Mo. 2003).  Even though Title VII and the Missouri Human Rights Act (MHRA) prohibited unlawful discrimination in the 1960's, it was not until recent times that either of these statutes have had meat.  Since 1991 sexual harassment has practically been eradicated in the workplace, employers have discrimination policies, equality in society has improved.

The MHRA provides that individuals can be sued and that punitive and compensatory damages are unlimited against employers, including government employers.  These parts of the statute are currently under attack in the Missouri Legislature.  This story shows the importance of enforcing the Missouri statute as it now stands.

Ruth Bates is a quiet, hard-working college-educated woman living in Kansas City, Missouri.  Before the mayoral elections in 2007, she receives a phone call from Mark Funkhouser asking her to help him get elected as mayor.  Ruth knows Funkhouser because he worked for the city with her husband and their children had been friends.  She agrees and works hard on the campaign and asks for and receives a job in the Mayor's office.  Unbeknownst to Ruth, when she hires in to work at the mayor's office, she is earning less than one half the salary of any of the male employees hired from the campaign to work in the office.  She also discovers that the mayor's wife, who has the mouth of a sailor, is the de facto supervisor of the office.  Ruth is African-American and the mayor's wife, on multiple occasions, calls Ruth, "Mammy," and makes crude sexual remarks. Ruth complains of the pay disparity to her actual supervisor, files an EEOC charge, and is ultimately fired from the Mayor's office and told she can be a clerk in the water department.  Ruth files a lawsuit for retaliation and discrimination.

The problem with suing an elected official is that there is no one in the government who is the official's boss, except the voters.  Generally, voters don't have access to what an elected official is really like and whether or not the elected official breaks discrimination laws.  Without discrimination lawsuits, and an informed and active press, an employee who has suffered discrimination has little recourse against an elected official.  In Ruth's lawsuit, we (I was her lawyer) sued not only the City of Kansas City, but also the mayor himself and his wife.  Under the proposed amendments to the statute, neither the mayor nor his wife would be in any way personally liable for their actions.

Ruth's initial goal before filing a lawsuit was to get fair pay in light of the salaries of the men, and to get the sexual and racial comments to stop.  Ruth did not want to work with the mayor's wife.  There is a Missouri constitutional provision prohibiting nepotism.  But, this illustrates the dilemma of having constitutional provisions or statutes which are not enforced.  The city council passed a volunteer ordinance, which was declared unconstitutional.  However, no one would raise the nepotism issue who had the ability to do so (e.g. prosecutor).  Ruth asked for very little money, just for a raise and to have the mayor leave his wife at home.   The mayor stated he would not leave his wife at home, so the case was not settled.

Ruth tried informally to talk to the mayor's wife to try to make the mayor's office a place she could work.  The meeting became very contentious.  It was clear to Ruth her only alternative for justice was to file a lawsuit.  We asked the EEOC for a right to sue letter, which is required to file a lawsuit, and began to prepare the lawsuit in Missouri court.  But, even before we can file the lawsuit, the mayor fires Ruth from the mayor's office.

I filed the lawsuit.  This lawsuit was different than any other lawsuit I have ever filed.  The Mayor had no boss and no one to tell him to comply with the law.  He and his wife were angry to be a part of a lawsuit.  The press got hold of the petition and published it in the paper.  Almost every deposition was published by the Kansas City Star.  The real bosses of the mayor, the voters, were being educated about what was going on in the mayor's office.

Ruth Bates was never one to seek attention or publicity.  She shies away from the press.  It is hard on a private person to have so much notoriety.  It takes a great deal of courage to go forward and Ruth and I had no idea what Ruth was to encounter.  The depositions are a matter of public record.  In my opinion, the depositions did not go well for the mayor and his wife.  I negotiated with the lawyer representing the mayor's wife, who had an insurance company that was paying for the defense, and settled with her for $45,000.  She went on record stating how horrified she was with the insurance company because she claimed she had done nothing wrong.

The City is obligated under its charter to pay for its exposure and the exposure of the City.  The City's lawyer approached me about settlement and we agreed on an additional $135,000.  Ruth was satisfied, because she stood up for herself and others and wanted to get on with her life.  All we needed was the approval of the City Council.  Normally, this was an easy process.  Not with this Mayor.  The Mayor had so antagonized the City Council, that they would not approve the settlement because they were angry at what he was putting the City through.  The City Council, in a three hour televised open council meeting told the mayor that if he was so adamant he and his wife had done nothing wrong, they wanted a trial.  The Mayor repeatedly entreated the Council to agree to the settlement.

I was frustrated that it looked like Ruth was being used as a political pawn.  The Mayor's individual lawyer, who was paid by City taxpayers, came to me and said that the Mayor could pay $35,000 out of his own budget and Ruth could receive a suitable job within the City and we could still proceed against the City.  My frustration with the politics of the City was nothing to compare to what happened next.

As soon as the Mayor thought he was personally off the hook, he showed his true colors.  The Mayor issued a vile and defamatory press release against Ruth, stating she had said horrendous things about the Mayor's opponent, that she had really wanted to borrow money from the mayor, etc.  Ruth was crushed by this retaliation.  The Mayor did not stop there, though.  He then, along with his lawyer, called a press conference covered by all local news stations and the newspaper stating horrendously false things about Ruth.  The Mayor's hubris and vengefulness was his downfall.  Rather than having the effect the Mayor had hoped, the public, i.e., voters, rallied behind Ruth.  There was no settlement with the Mayor, no job in City Hall for Ruth.

We prepared for trial.  On the eve of trial, the Mayor finally produced items from his computer which we had been asking for for months.  One item was particularly illuminating.  The Mayor's wife had decided to write a book about their time in the Mayor's office.  In that manuscript, which read like a diary, the Mayor's wife poured her hatred of Ruth and other employees in the Mayor's office.  This manuscript was published in the Kansas City Star.  In fact, the document gave rise to another lawsuit by another employee who was fired by the Mayor.  That lawsuit was settled days before the primary.

Armed with the depositions, the documents, and the manuscripts, Ruth was ready to go to trial.   The day before jury selection was to begin, the City Council approved an offer to Ruth of $550,000.  This combined with the $45,000 received from the Mayor's wife, amounted to $595,000.  Ruth Bates initially would have settled for less than $20,000, a pay increase, and for peace at work.

The Mayor and his wife have consistently declared they did not do anything wrong.  In February 2011 the Mayor ran for reelection.  He didn't survive the primary.   For the last 80 or 90 years, Kansas Citians have always loved their mayors.  Every mayor, until this recent election, was voted in for a second term.  Not this mayor.  The mayor's "bosses," the electorate, spoke.  Still the Mayor and his wife believe they have not done anything wrong.Mayor interview 2/11 with Chris Hernandez

Why is this important now?  The Missouri Legislature has bills before it, HB 205 and SB 188, which will cripple the MHRA.  Even though civil rights laws have been on the books for over 50 years,  they did not become effective until they got teeth.  In 2003, the MHRA got teeth when the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that citizens had the right to jury trials under the statute.  Now, the proposed amendments, want to do away with individual liability, take away punitive damages against governments, and limit damages for pain and suffering and punitive damages to anywhere between $50,000 to $300,000.  If these amendments had been in effect, Ruth Bates would not have got justice.  Perhaps, the voters would have reelected Mayor Funkhouser.  The result would not have been good for the citizens of Kansas City.


  1. The $500,000 settlement was the very definition of excessive. No supporter of the Funkhouser duo I have been skeptical of this case from the get go. That money could have gone to better the community and instead fattened wallets. At this point in time because of settlements like this I would actually favor monetary limits.