Rudi Keller @CDTCivilWar
A second ruling in favor of a Jefferson City woman who accused Missouri Veterans Commission executive director Larry Kay of age and sex discrimination should start a discussion of whether he will keep his job, a legislative member of the commission said Tuesday.
The Western District Court of Appeals on Tuesday ruled in favor Pat Rowe Kerr, the veterans’ ombudsman for the commission fired by Kay in 2009. In the 3-0 ruling, the court ruled that Kay and the commission could not prove that the trial court improperly excluded some evidence and improperly allowed “me too” evidence showing a pattern of discriminatory behavior by Kay.
“During trial, Kerr presented testimony from numerous female soldiers who had been deployed to Kosovo and served under Kay,” Judge Karen King Mitchell wrote. “These soldiers testified that Kay berated and belittled them, and they further testified to instances where Kay removed high-ranking women from their positions and replaced them with men.”
At the conclusion of a 10-day trial in July 2016, jurors in Cole County awarded Kerr $1.3 million in actual damages and $1.575 million in punitive damages. Circuit Judge Jon Beetem in October awarded Kerr $884,381 in attorneys’ fees. Neither amount has been paid. Kerr’s award is accruing interest at the rate of 5.5 percent until the case is completed.
“My case being affirmed just reinforces that they were lying,” Kerr said in an interview Tuesday.
State Rep. Pat Conway, D-St. Joseph, who joined the commission earlier this year, said he wants the nine-member commission to take another look at his employment. The commission met Monday in Jefferson City.
“The timing of it might have been a little bit better had it come prior to the commission meeting,” Conway said. “I am sure this is something that the commission members are going to want to discuss in depth.”
Kerr and Kay began clashing soon after he was hired as deputy director in 2006, Mitchell wrote, when Kay told Kerr that there were “generational differences” between them and asking when Kerr planned to retire. The problems became more severe after Kay returned from a deployment to Kosovo to take over as executive director in June 2009, she wrote.
Kay told Kerr he wanted to split her job into two positions, an ombudsman and a veterans outreach coordinator. When she said she didn’t want to take the outreach job, “Kay became angry with Kerr and called her on a regular basis over the course of the next month to berate and intimidate her into taking the outreach position,” Mitchell wrote. “Many of Kay’s abusive phone calls to Kerr were witnessed by Kerr’s husband, coworkers, and others. Finally, on July 2, 2009, Kerr relented and accepted the outreach position after seeking and receiving assurances from Kay that her job would be secure.”
When she was fired at the end of October 2009, Kay claimed it was due to budget cuts. Kerr made $67,776 in 2008 and the evidence showed that while Kay was telling Kerr he couldn’t afford to keep her, Kay provided $76,000 in raises to three male employees and two jobs with total salaries in excess of $100,000 remained open.
“During the trial on Kerr’s petition, she presented evidence of derogatory statements made by both Kay and” deputy director Bryan Hunt, “indicating things such as a need to ‘weed out the old people,’ ‘women can’t do men’s jobs,’ and ‘we don’t like women with white hair,’” Mitchell wrote.
The Missouri Veterans Commission operates seven nursing homes for veterans, provides counseling and support through veterans services officers and maintains five state veterans’ cemeteries. Five of the nine members are appointed by the governor and must be endorsed by veterans groups to qualify. Four members are state lawmakers, appointed by legislative leaders.
Another legislative member, state Rep. Steve Lynch, R-Waynesville, said in an interview Tuesday that he’s not sure what the next step should be.