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The Buzz

Ex-Missouri House leader wins $2 million settlement in age, sex discrimination case

By Jason Hancock

and Steve Kraske

December 09, 2016 03:54 PM

A prominent former Missouri lawmaker who later worked for the state has won a $2 million settlement in an age and gender discrimination case against Gov. Jay Nixon.

Documents The Star obtained Friday showed that Gracia Backer, who in 1996 became the first woman to serve as a party floor leader, and her lawyer will receive two payments. The first was to have been made Dec. 1. The second will come Jan. 4.

Backer, a Democrat from New Bloomfield, declined to say much about the case in a brief interview.

“The matter has been resolved, and I am satisfied,” she said.

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The governor’s office declined to comment. Nixon was dismissed from the case as part of the settlement.

Backer had said she was fired from her job in the Missouri Department of Labor in 2013 because she complained to Nixon’s office that her boss — former Department of Labor Director Larry Rebman — had created a hostile work environment. Backer accused Rebman of discrimination against older female workers.

Backer had submitted to Nixon’s office more than a dozen names of other women who she said were prepared to verify her complaints about Rebman. On the same day Backer was dismissed, Rebman was appointed to an administrative law judge position in Kansas City.

In September, the trial was postponed until late February, which would have been several weeks after Nixon leaves office at the end of his second term. The judge said more time was needed for the trial than what was available in October.

At the time, Backer described her case as solid.

“I’ve waited 3  1/2 years, so three more months won’t make any difference,” she said.

In October, The Star first reported that juries have ordered the state to pay more than $16 million in damages since 2014 related to discrimination and harassment lawsuits against various agencies in the Nixon administration.

▪ Pat Rowe Kerr said she was fired from her job at the Missouri Veterans Commission because of age and gender discrimination. A jury awarded her $2.8 million in July, and in October a judge added more than $900,000 in fees and costs.

▪ Janet Mignone alleged gender discrimination and harassment against the Missouri Department of Corrections. A jury awarded her $1.1 million in damages and another $275,000 in attorney’s fees in March.

▪ Debra Hesse alleged gender discrimination, harassment and retaliation against the Missouri Department of Corrections. A Jackson County jury awarded her $1.9 million in January.

▪ Terrie Fuchs said she was mistreated by her supervisors in the Missouri Department of Revenue because she had cerebral palsy. A jury awarded her $1.7 million in September 2015.

▪ Timothy Barber said he was laid off from his job with the Missouri Department of Public Safety because of his age. In March 2014, he was awarded $1.1 million by a St. Louis jury.

▪ Matthew Vacca filed a lawsuit in 2012 saying his supervisors in the Missouri Department of Labor created a hostile work environment to force him out of his job over his disability. A jury awarded him $7 million in October 2015.

The state has appealed most of these jury verdicts.

Since 2011, more than 100 discrimination lawsuits have been filed against executive branch agencies.

Earlier this week, House Speaker Todd Richardson announced lawmakers would investigate legal costs associated with harassment and discrimination lawsuits against the Department of Corrections. The move came in response to a story published in The Pitch.

Richardson didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about the lawsuits against other state departments.

Also Friday, state Auditor Nicole Galloway, a Democrat, said her office would review the state’s Legal Expense Fund from which payments are made to settle lawsuits against the state, such as the one involving Backer.

“Like many of my colleagues in state government, I was alarmed and dismayed by recent reporting on sexual harassment and discrimination involving Department of Corrections employees, and by the troubling amount of taxpayer money the state is spending to settle these lawsuits,” Galloway said in a statement.

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock

Steve Kraske: 816-234-4312, @stevekraske