KANSAS CITY, Kan. – When a jury awards a plaintiff monetary damages after filing suit and winning, many assume they get paid, and they’re sent on their way.
But if a jury concludes with an advisory verdict, a court’s nonbinding decision, it’s possible that the legal and financial battle is just beginning.
“If a 10-panel jury says, ‘This is what happened,’ then that’s what happens, but summary judgments are the worst because it actually builds the person up to think that they’re at the end, you know, the finale of something and you can actually be at the beginning of it,” Jyan Harris, a former Kansas City, Kansas, firefighter, said.
In April 2021, a federal jury awarded Harris $2.4 million in damages following a racial discrimination lawsuit against the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas. But 13 months after Harris’ verdict, he still hasn’t received a dime.
“It is important to note that the jury verdict was advisory on the issues of lost wages and no monetary judgment has been entered by the Court,” Wendy Green, attorney at the Unified Government, said in an email.
The federal jury’s verdict in Harris’ case was advisory, meaning the payout size that jurors elected is still subject to change, depending on the presiding judge’s determination.
U.S. District Court Presiding Judge Julie Robinson forwarded Harris’ case to mediation under Judge James P. O’Hara after the advisory judgment was entered to see if the two parties could reach a settlement before a final judgment was determined.
On December 6, an administrative order was issued stating the court had been informed that both parties reached a settlement, closing the case. But Harris said no settlement was ever reached and over a year later, he and the Unified Government are still stuck in a stalemate over the amount of the payout.
In the meantime, Harris says his bills are piling up.
“I need to be able to pay my mortgage,” Harris said. “I need to be able to pay the taxes on my property.”
“The person holding up my money is the people I got to pay it to, Wyandotte County.”
Injured and discriminated against on the job
In 2013, Harris was injured at work when he was struck by a car. According to the lawsuit, instead of receiving injury leave, the Kansas City, Kansas Fire Department forced him to use all of his personal sick leave.
Harris’ initial complaint to the department states that “caucasian employees who were injured on the job were not forced to use any of their sick or vacation time while off work due to an on-the-job injury.”
And for firefighters, using a sick day means a loss of income.
In February 2021, the department paid out firefighters’ unused sick and vacation time, but because Harris’ absence was filed as a personal sick leave rather than injury leave, he received no compensation.
“Monetarily, it should’ve never got this far,” Harris said.
After returning to work, Harris was transferred to another station where every employee had already requested their vacation days for the year. Having to work around an entire department’s schedule, the lawsuit cites how Harris was forced to cancel two scheduled family vacations.
Then, in 2016, Harris was suspended from his job as a paramedic without pay after the Unified Government accused him of calling in sick to the fire department to take hours at a different city job, and inputting hours for both jobs simultaneously, according to the lawsuit.
Harris said he merely traded shifts with another firefighter, a frequent practice in the department.
But instead of being reinstated in 2018, he was fired.
“When I got suspended, I was working at a camp making $9 an hour,” Harris said. “I never did it for the money.”
“I was there because I actually loved that job.”
Praying for payment and systematic changes
After suing the Unified Government for racial discrimination, issues of bias and poor record-keeping were discovered within KCK. County officials lost the case and publicly committed to improve the department, unable to prove Harris hadn’t traded shifts instead of “double-dipping.”
In April 2021, Doug Bach, former-county administrator at the Unified Government, said in a news release that the city and its firefighters would develop an action plan to address issues of racism and discrimination and would publicly report on its progress later in the year.
To date, no progress reports have been made public.
On Monday, KCK firefighters protested department leadership after the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 64 passed a “vote of no confidence” in First Deputy Chief Jack Andrade in May.
The union claimed Andrade created a hostile work environment packed with low morale, which included threats and a decision by the Unified Government requiring firefighters to use sick time when quarantined due to exposure to the COVID-19 virus.
“Despite continued unsubstantiated claims, the Kansas City, Kansas Fire Department remains committed to working with the IAFF Local 64, supporting firefighters, and protecting the community at the highest possible level,” the department said in a statement on Monday. “The KCKFD does not tolerate workplace violence and we are committed to ensuring a safe environment for all employees,.”
Cheryl Harrison-Lee, who was named the interim county administrator in January, said she is actively assessing the workplace culture.
She said the department will share the findings of several critical assessments with the Unified Government this summer as part of an initiative called UG Forward, designed to help assess how government employees can best assist its staff and customers reach success.
“While action has been taken to understand and provide a response to past claims, we are looking across the organization to ensure we have the policies, processes, and resources to support our employees and managers in a safe work environment.,” she said in an email.
As the city works to improve its policies, Harris said he struggles to stay afloat.
Having watched at least three Unified Government employees file suit against their employer and settle since receiving his advisory judgment, Harris said he feels the prolonged legal battle is just another form of retaliation.
“I think the people in this community think that I’ve been able to move on, (but I haven’t),” Harris said. “Everybody, not just white people, black people, they (all) say, ‘What was done to him, it was done wrong, he’s got to get compensated, he’s got to move on with his life.’”