Corrections Officer Awarded Punitive Damages Over Employer Sexual Harassment Awareness

Written on 02/03/2024

Samantha Kelley was a corrections officer at the Farmington Correctional Center in Missouri. In 2014, she was assigned to Housing Unit 25 (HU 25), where she worked alongside officers Dwight Yancey and Robert Pearson. All three officers were supervised by a sergeant.

Immediately upon her assignment to HU 25, Kelley was subject to inappropriate sexual comments and jokes by Yancey and Pearson, as described:

“The men frequently sat outside the control room, watching female staff members sign into HU 25, rating their physical appearances on a numerical scale, and discussing what sex acts they would like to do with the female staff members. Yancey discussed what sex positions he engaged in with his girlfriend, telling Pearson he would record his sexual encounters and send pictures to Pearson. Both Yancey and Pearson ‘constantly’ made gestures simulating the act of masturbation, and on several occasions, Yancey unzipped his pants and pulled his shirt tail through the zipper area to simulate a penis. Finally, Yancey asked Kelley about the relationship status of another female staff member and asked for other female staff members’ personal contact information. When Kelley responded that such comments made new employees feel uncomfortable, Yancey appeared offended by the statement and said if that was the case, the employees should quit.”

On some occasions, Yancey and Pearson engaged in this conduct in the presence of their supervising sergeant, who never told them to stop. Furthermore, both Yancey and Pearson were subjects of prior complaints by several female coworkers for substantially similar behavior. Neither man was formally disciplined, nor transferred out of HU 25 as a result. Three months after her assignment to HU 25, Kelley submitted a formal complaint, which ultimately led to Pearson’s suspension and transfer. Yancey was temporarily moved off HU 25 but was returned after receiving a non-disciplinary letter of caution. Kelley, distressed at the prospect of having to work with Yancey again, was reassigned out of HU 25 at her request. She then found a new job at another location.

Kelley sued the Missouri Department of Corrections for sexual harassment based on a hostile work environment, claiming the Department failed to take remedial action against Pearson and Yancey. Kelley won just over one million dollars at trial, including $750,000 in punitive damages, and the Department appealed. The appellate court affirmed the trial court judgment. The Court rejected the Department’s argument that it did not have knowledge of the sexual harassment, and therefore should not be liable for Yancey and Pearson’s actions. Under the relevant law, employer knowledge could be established with proof that (1) management received reports of misconduct; or (2) the harassment was so pervasive that the employer should have been aware of its existence. The Court found Kelley proved the Department’s knowledge in both ways. First, there were multiple sexual harassment complaints against both men over a period of years. Second, the record established that at least two supervisors personally witnessed Kelley’s harassment and failed to report it, despite the prior complaints.

The Court also rejected the Department’s challenge to the $750,000 punitive damages award, finding that, among other things, the Department’s conduct was sufficiently reprehensible to justify the penalty: “By allowing Pearson and Yancey’s inappropriate conduct to continue for several years, it became more severe and aggressive, and Kelley specifically testified that she became concerned not only for her own safety and welfare, but also that of a female coworker who previously reported their harassment. Finally, even after Kelley formally reported Yancey’s and Pearson’s conduct and the Department found that some of her allegations were corroborated, the Department allowed Yancey to return to HU 25 with her and did not take any ‘meaningful action’ to ensure the harassing conduct stopped.”

Kelley v. Department of Corrections, No. ED 110609, 2023 WL 6219827 (Mo. Ct. App. 2023).