ST. LOUIS (CN) — A Missouri appeals court upheld a $4.85 million racial discrimination award to a white teacher who was fired from Harris-Stowe State University, an historically black college.
A trial jury awarded Elizabeth Wilkins $1.35 million in compensatory damages and $3.5 million in punitive damages on her claim that she was fired in favor of less senior black teachers. She also claimed Dr. Latisha Smith, the temporary co-chair for Harris-Stowe’s Teacher Education Department, repeatedly proclaimed her belief in “black power” in emails.
Harris-Stowe’s defense was crippled by the fact that it deleted emails in Smith’s account, in violation of a court order.
“During discovery, the trial court ordered the Board [of Regents] to preserve Dr. Smith’s email account,” Judge Kurt Odenwald wrote for the three-judge panel.
“In violation of the order, the Board deleted Dr. Smith’s email account. Because of this violation, the trial court ruled, as a sanction, that the following allegations were deemed admitted: Dr. Smith’s email account contained statements expressing her desire to make the Teacher Education Department ‘blacker’ and that she recommended terminating Wilkins’s employment.”
Harris-Stowe claimed it fired Wilkins for her “inappropriate activities.”
The college made five points in its appeal to the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Eastern District:
- that the trial court erred in instructing the jury on future damages;
- that the trial court erroneously permitted Wilkins to cite an irrelevant state law to the jury;
- that the trial court erred in failing to remit the jury’s award of compensatory damages because the verdict was grossly excessive and not supported by the evidence;
- and that the trial court erred in submitting the issue of punitive damages to the jury;
- and that the trial court erred in failing to remit the jury’s award of punitive damages.
But on Tuesday, the appeals court affirmed the trial court ruling on all five points, plus Wilkins’s request $35,603 in for attorneys’ fees and costs.
“We have not yet had an opportunity to review the ruling with counsel,” a Harris-Stowe State University spokesperson said in an email. “After review, we will evaluate the steps the University will need to take in light of the ruling.”
Writing for the unanimous panel, Odenwald noted that Wilkins earned around $67,622 a year when she was fired. She planned to teach into her 70s and had received nothing but positive performance reviews.
“The record is absolutely void of any evidence to suggest that Wilkins was unsuited for her position or that she was at risk of being lawfully terminated,” Odenwald wrote. “Yet, after her termination for ‘inappropriate activities,’ Wilkins testified that her academic reputation was ruined, that HSSU placed a letter alleging misconduct into her employment file, and that she believed she could not receive the necessary recommendations for subsequent employment. Unexpectedly thrust into the job market, the record reflects that Wilkins was interested in, and searched for, similar teaching positions at colleges or universities in the area. However, Wilkins was unable to find such a job within commuting distance of St. Louis.”
Presiding Judge James M. Dowd and Judge Gary M. Gaertner concurred.
Harris-Stowe, in St. Louis, has an enrollment of about 1,400. Annual tuition for an in-state residential student is about $16,984, according to the college website, which estimates tuition for an in-state nonresidential student as $7,484. Part-time students pay $199 per credit hour.