Ex-Kan. firefighter who won race-discrimination suit still fighting for payment
Over a year after being awarded $2.4M, Jyan Harris says he hasn’t received payment, and the unified government is angling to pay less than $1.5M
The Kansas City Star
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Jyan Harris does everything he can to avoid Kansas City, Kansas, firefighters.
He goes grocery shopping before dawn so he does not run into former coworkers. He cannot stand looking at fire trucks. The sound of sirens triggers trauma.
“I don’t feel the same no more, man,” Harris said. “I don’t even feel like the same man I was when I served in the military for this country and went to war for this country.”
In April 2021, a federal jury sided with Harris, finding that the Unified Government discriminated against him while he was a firefighter with the Kansas City, Kansas Fire Department. The 10-member jury awarded Harris more than $2.4 million.
But more than 14 months later, Harris has not received a dime. His bills are piling up. His anxiety keeps getting worse.
Harris and the UG are stuck on the settlement amount — and have been since August 2021.
Harris believes he’s entitled to the $2.4 million. But court documents say the UG has been trying to pay him much less, while at the same time dragging out the process.
The UG did not respond to multiple emails seeking comment.
Sarah Liesen, an attorney for Harris, declined to comment.
Harris, who is Black, sued the Unified Government in 2018, after he was fired for raising complaints about racism he faced within the fire department. The UG had accused him of double dipping when he submitted timesheets for seasonal work he did at summer youth camps for the parks and recreation department while he was scheduled to work for the fire department.
Harris and his attorneys, however, argued the UG investigated and terminated him because he had raised discrimination complaints.
Black Kan. firefighters describe racist incidents at trial over coworker's firing
A federal court will rule whether a Black Kansas City firefighter was fired in retaliation for reporting harassment and discrimination
The jury decided in his favor following a nine-day trial.
The jury’s ruling was an advisory verdict meaning a judge would determine if the amount was appropriate. U.S. District Court Judge Julie Robinson sent the case to mediation under Judge James P. O’Hara, so Harris and the UG could try to reach a final amount.
Harris said he has been surprised at how the process has played out. A little over four months after the jury reached its verdict, his attorneys and the UG met for mediation, according to court records. They couldn’t reach an agreement, court records said, but a framework for the settlement was:
- Back pay from the date of termination through August 2021: $357,541
- Emotional distress: $235,435
- Reinstate Harris and pay him his regular salary as set by the applicable union contract for the next four years
- Harris would retire at 55 and would be able to collect his retirement funds
Several months later, on Dec. 6, an order was issued saying both sides agreed on the terms, which would have ended the case.
But that agreement was news to Harris. He was not aware that the order had been filed in court until later that month.
“I was furious,” Harris said.
The case continued to drag on until May 3 when the UG submitted a motion to pay slightly less than $1.5 million, according to a draft of the settlement agreement submitted in court documents. Harris would be employed again with the department but would not work as a firefighter.
Again, the UG argued both sides had agreed to a settlement.
“No such agreement has been reached,” Harris’ lawyers said in response to the motion filed May 19.
In the year since the verdict — and throughout the settlement negotiations — Harris has shown up to UG meetings and spoken to commissioners expressing his frustration.
He says he’s lost 40 pounds since he was fired in 2018. He can’t sleep most nights. He can’t help but feel ashamed.
“I’m feeling ashamed even though I did nothing wrong,” Harris said. “I feel ashamed that it went this far. I feel ashamed that I’m not a fireman anymore helping my community.”
A hearing on the motion to enforce the settlement agreement has been set for 10 a.m. on July 26.
©2022 The Kansas City Star