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$800,000 judgment against Louisiana over firing of official

Posted on Tuesday, May 7, 2019 at 2:21 pm

Jenne

Niedner

SUB: Former mayor and co-defendant Niedner says he hopes the result is appealed

Louisiana, MO: Former Louisiana Mayor Bart Niedner hopes to continue to fight the nearly $800,000 judgment against himself and the city as the result of a lawsuit by fired city official Robert Jenne.

Jenne won damages, the estimated cost of his unpaid salary through his retirement, and legal fees in his lawsuit against Niedner and the city. The costs to be borne by the city’s insurance, according to Niedner and current city officials.

In October, a St. Charles jury rejected Jenne’s claim of age discrimination. They agreed with him, however, that the city had violated its duties under a provision of the Missouri Human Rights Act which protects employees from retaliation.

Jenne served as city administrator starting in 2007, replacing once-and-future city administrator Kelly Henderson. He had previously worked as a police officer and a police administrator in St. Louis County, where he served as police chief in the town of Berkeley for six years. In the summer of 2014 he took on additional duties as an administrative police chief — the position that would prove to be the crux of his case against the city.

The relationship between Jenne and the city soured in January 2015 after he told city leadership that they would need to come up with millions to meet federal clean water standards. Niedner and council members at the time said they felt they had not been adequately forewarned about the expense.

Ultimately, the mayor and council found their way around the prospect of rushing a bond issue onto the April ballot, but said their confidence in Jenne had been destroyed. The Council voted 6-2 to fire Jenne as city administrator.

“The whole thing is a shock to me,” Jenne was quoted as saying in the Louisiana Press-Journal while the council considered his fate in closed session.

“I’ve never been admonished or had anything bad put in my personnel file. I just bought a house because I intended on ending my career here.” Jenne maintained that the city officials knew about the situation through various documents touching on it that came across their desks.

The Council held off on removing him from his position as police chief. Under Missouri law, city administrators serve at will while police chiefs can only be fired for cause. “Personally, it’s awkward,” Niedner was quoted as saying in the Louisiana Press-Journal at the time. “I would prefer he resign but there is no cause.”

Instead, Jenne was offered the option of continuing in his position for a few months in a part-time capacity with a significant pay cut. At the time, members of council expressed frustration with his decision to continue in the position, according to reporting in the Louisiana Press-Journal.

“Not a surprise, but sure is a disappointment,” then-council member Mona Brown said in an email to the paper. “I had hoped that Mr. Jenne could have the best interests of Louisiana in his heart and allow us to move forward with some dignity for everyone.”

A month later, Jenne left the position and filed a complaint with the Human Rights Commission of the Missouri Department of Labor alleging age discrimination and retaliation. A case brought simultaneously by City Clerk Sharon Kakouris complaining of age discrimination, sex discrimination and retaliation was dropped in April 2018. Both cases were moved to St. Charles at the request of the defendants.

Before the case went to trial, Jenne ran to represent Ward II on City Council in 2018. He told the Press-Journal at the time that he would not drop his lawsuit if elected.

“The only statement that I will give is that I was wrongfully discharged under the employee handbook and the precedent that we had in place at that time…. I know what goes on in the city and I think I would be an asset. I’m not looking to harm the city or take vindictive action,” Jenne said. He lost the race by a narrow margin.

He claimed the city discriminated against older employees, and quoted Niedner referring to his age negatively — quotes Niedner categorically denied having said.

In early 2016 Jenne dropped that case in favor of his lawsuit. The lawsuit also named the City Council members who voted against Jenne: Kathy Smith, Mona Brown, Jeff Guay, Lori Lewis and Chuck Hoffman. Jenne dropped his charges against the council members at the trial in the case, which took place in late October 2018.

“It is my prayer that the painful experience does not erode their continued public service or dissuade others from volunteering,” Niedner wrote in a statement to the Louisiana Press-Journal.

A JUDGEMENT CALL

The jury returned a split decision after the three-day trial: finding in favor of Niedner and the city on the question of age discrimination while finding in favor of Jenne on the charge of retaliation.

“I am very relieved to be completely exonerated from this accusation.  It has been a very painful burden for my family and me these past three years. Unfortunately, the jury found in favor of Mr. Jenne on the secondary count of retaliation regarding his role as Administrative Police Chief.  I remain wholly in objection to this finding,” Niedner wrote.

The jury awarded Jenne more than $188,000 in back pay, representing the pay he would have received through the end of the trial. It declined to award him punitive damages.

A filing by Jenne’s lawyer presented the judge with two options: allow him to take back up his position at a salary of $72,000 a year or more than $321,000 in “front pay” representing the money he would have made up to age 75, when he testified that he planned to retire. In Tuesday’s order the judge awarded Jenne more than $286,000 for legal costs and opted for the front pay arrangement.

“The Court finds it unlikely that the employer-employee relationship between Plaintiff and Defendant City of Louisiana can be repaired such that a productive and amicable working relationship would be possible,” Pelikan wrote.

“The award of hundreds of thousands of dollars to Mr. Jenne for “front pay” is wildly out of line with the facts of the case.  I am strongly urging our [insurance] carrier to appeal the decision,” Niedner wrote in response to the verdict.

Julianne Germinder, an attorney for Jenne, welcomed the judge’s decision, noting that he had met all of Jenne’s request.

“We’re very pleased that the judge has now entered judgement in my clients favor [that] really made him whole],” Germinder said. Germinder was optimistic about Jenne’s prospects on appeal.

Germinder declined to make Jenne available for an interview while an appeal in the case was pending, and Niedner said he had also been advised to keep his response to questions narrow until the legal process ends.

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