Former Kan. firefighter awarded $2.4M in racial discrimination trial

A federal jury ruled that the firing of Kansas City Firefighter Jyan Harris, who is Black, was in retaliation for reporting harassment


Steve Vockrodt
The Kansas City Star

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — A federal jury found that the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/ Kansas City, Kansas, discriminated against a Black firefighter and then retaliated against him when it fired him for raising complaints.

The 10-member jury returned a verdict in favor of former Kansas City, Kansas, Fire Department employee Jyan Harris on Thursday after deliberating for about eight hours. The jury awarded Harris $2,432,000, an amount that represents back pay, future pay and compensatory damages for both his discrimination and retaliation claims.

"Hopefully now it shows them that you can't do people like that," Harris said after the verdict was read. "You have to do your due diligence before you take somebody's livelihood away, especially somebody who's giving you their livelihood."

The verdict caps off more than three years of litigation after Harris filed his lawsuit in 2018. The Unified Government had accused Harris of double dipping when he submitted time sheets for seasonal work he did at summer youth camps for its parks and recreation department while he was scheduled to work for the fire department.

But Harris' lawyers — Katherine Myers and Sarah Liesen — succeeded in convincing the jury that the double-dipping investigation was a pretext for firing their client after he raised complaints about racial discrimination he faced while working in the KCKFD.

"Discrimination and retaliation are insidious. Usually it's not a, quote unquote, smoking gun," Myers said. "Usually it's a combination of circumstances and things."

The trial, which lasted for nine days and went to the jury on Tuesday afternoon, produced several witnesses who testified about instances of racial issues in the KCKFD.

Witnesses testified and evidence appeared to support that Black firefighters were frequently moved into one fire station, that they were often passed over for promotions and were not actively recruited to work for a predominantly white fire department serving a racially diverse city.

Former Mayor Mark Holland testified that former KCKFD chief John Paul Jones once remarked to him about how it was difficult to hire Black firefighters because Jones believed Black people were afraid of fire. Jones, who left the department in 2018, denied making the remark. One Black firefighter, a Unified Government document reflected, was disciplined for making a complaint outside of the chain of command about the presence of a noose in a fire station.

The Unified Government, in a statement, acknowledged the trial "surfaced other underlying and unacceptable issues within the culture of our fire department that are critical to address."

"While we support an inclusive fire department, this case has highlighted concerns among some of our personnel that we have more work to do," said Doug Bach, Unified Government administrator, in a written statement. "Our firefighters are on the front lines of our public safety and, in 2021, no one should feel unwelcome or wronged while on the job. Consequently, we are taking swift and decisive action to ensure that no one, no matter their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or religion, feels mistreated or disadvantaged within our workplace."

During his closing argument, Ryan Denk, attorney representing the Unified Government, pressed jurors to consider whether those stories of racial issues supported Harris' claims of race discrimination.

"This is where the plaintiff bears the burden of proof," Denk said. "I contend they have fallen short of that."

The jury appeared to have disagreed.

"The verdict speaks for itself," said Mike Telthorst, one of the jurors as he prepared to leave the courthouse.

The trial was full of conflicting testimony. There were meetings that may or may not have happened. Records that may or may not have existed. Statements that may or may not have been spoken.

The case likely hinged on who the jury ultimately trusted was telling the truth about what transpired with Harris during his last year of working as a firefighter.

'Up to and including termination'

Harris started working as a firefighter in 2004, after a stint working with the Wyandotte County Sheriff's Office, which was preceded by military service. Harris testified that he joined the fire department as a continuation of his service to a community in which he had lived all his life.

Harris' lawsuit said that he was injured on the job in 2013 and forced to use sick and vacation leave time while recovering, while white firefighters injured at work got to use injury time.

Harris said he met with Bach in the fall of 2015, along with influential pastor Rev. Jimmie Banks. According to Harris, he discussed race discrimination in KCKFD.

While Bach acknowledged the meeting and said that sick time was among the issues that were talked about, he testified this week that he didn't recall race coming up in the conversation. In earlier testimony from a 2019 deposition, Bach said it was "possible" that race was discussed.

Around that same time in 2015, the Kansas Department of Labor was investigating whether the Unified Government Parks and Recreation Department had misclassified workers for the summer youth programs as independent contractors when they should have been employees.

Harris was one of those employees.

Unified Government human resources director Renee Ramirez testified that she requested records from the parks department and KCKFD. When comparing the two, Ramirez concluded that Harris was working at the fire department on five days during the summer of 2015 while also claiming payment for working at the parks department at the same time.

In May 2016, she recommended Harris be disciplined "up to and including termination."

Harris called human resources on June 9, 2016, to complain about harassment he was facing. A meeting with human resources was scheduled for the next day, but then was canceled by human resources.

Harris then sought meetings with Holland, the Unified Government mayor at the time, and Bach.

Harris said there was a meeting with Bach on June 30, 2016, where his complaints of race discrimination were discussed. Bach testified that he didn't recall the meeting.

But Harris did meet with Holland on July 7, 2016, where he complained about race discrimination.

The following day, Bach wrote an email to Ramriez that, among other things, mentioned that Harris was complaining about race discrimination.

A week later, Harris was called to a meeting at City Hall with human resources. Harris testified that he thought the meeting was to hear his complaints about harassment against him by his fire department captain.

The meeting was attended by assistant Unified Government administrator Joe Connor, Ramirez, Harris and two deputy fire chiefs, John Peterson and John Zimbelman, and Bob Wing, the union representative for the fire department.

According to Connor's account of the meeting, Harris was confronted by the discrepancies in his time sheets at the parks and fire departments. Connor's memo said Harris didn't dispute the accusations.

But Harris portrayed the meeting as an ambush and said he tried to explain he had traded his shifts on the days in question.

Connor later wrote a memo to Jones, the fire chief at the time, giving him the recommendation to suspend Harris, which happened on Sept. 28, 2016.

By 2018, he was fired after an arbitrator upheld his suspension and his grievances were exhausted. The jury was not told about the arbitrator's decision because U.S. District Court Judge Julie Robinson determined that the arbitrator did not review much of the testimony and evidence that was produced for the trial.

Shift trading is common

Harris said, like most firefighters, he traded shifts. That, from Harris' standpoint, is what explains the Unified Government's records that show him being in two places at once in 2015.

The Unified Government's investigation concluded that Harris was working shifts for the fire department on those five days in question in 2015. Daily rosters and log books appear to indicate he was at Fire Station No. 10.

Attorneys for Harris said those records were unreliable. Instead, Harris had traded those shifts to other firefighters so he could go work for the summer camp for eight or nine hours and then return to serve out the rest of his 24-hour shift.

Time trading is a common and legal practice in fire departments, where the unusual nature of their shifts — often 24 hours on duty, followed by 48 hours off duty — necessitate some flexibility in moving shifts around. An unusual aspect of shift trading in KCKFD is the person who is having a colleague cover their shift is still paid as though they worked that shift, even though someone else did it. There may be an expectation that the trade is reciprocated, but it's not required.

But Harris' lawyers produced witnesses who testified that time trading records were poorly kept by KCKFD. The two firefighters making a trade had to sign a paper slip, which then had to be signed by a captain, a battalion chief and a division chief for a total of five signatures.

In Harris' case, there are no time trading slips in existence that show he traded shifts away on those five days in the summer of 2015.

But Harris, as well as several other witnesses, reported a common practice of station chiefs discarding time slips, particularly for trades lasting just a few hours.

One firefighter said he avoided trading time altogether, saying the process at KCKFD was "not on the up and up."

The paper slips the fire department used to track trades were later replaced by an electronic system.

There also were annual attendance calendars for firefighters, but they were not reviewed in the Harris investigation.

"If this was you being investigated, would you have wanted someone to look at them?" Myers asked Connor.

"I suppose," he replied.

'I should be captain or better'

Testimony by Harris' witnesses reflected a fire department where Black employees are treated different and where family connections to top Unified Government personnel and elected officials have insulated KCKFD from accountability.

Terry Allen, a Black longtime firefighter, wept on the stand as he recalled how he was passed up for promotion from firefighter to driver in 2011 and 2017 after he passed the required tests.

Allen did finally get his promotion last year.

"And now that I'm in that position, all these guys are now telling me I should have been a driver years ago and I shouldn't be in this position as a driver" now, Allen said. "I should be a captain or better."

Lee Jamahl Washington, another Black firefighter, testified about how he was called to headquarters and told to delete a Facebook post in which he referenced his opinion about police brutality against Black men.

Several firefighters discussed how Fire Station No. 10, a fire station near Rosedale, was where Black firefighters were often sent.

Holland, the former mayor, testified that KCKFD, particularly through its union, influences city politics, where both elected and top city officials often have family who work for the fire department. Holland pointed out the husband of Renee Ramirez, the human resources director, works for KCKFD.

"The fire department gets a pass because of the legacy this fire department has in Kansas City, Kansas," Holland said.

Bach, in a statement, said the Unified Government had "zero tolerance" for the claims raised in the trial.

"We are very concerned about the issues of bias and mistreatment our Black firefighters raised in testimony," he said, "and will be working to address it immediately."

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(c)2021 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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