Workplace

Jury says four were fired unfairly in emailed porn case, awards $917K

Updated: 2014-02-01T04:00:25Z

By DIANE STAFFORD

The Kansas City Star

In a case involving porn shared in a company email, a jury has awarded four former employees of Kansas Gas Service $917,035 after it decided they were discriminated against based on age.

The employees had said they were disciplined more harshly than others after discovery of the emailed porn. The monetary award was given for lost income and emotional distress.

The case, filed in Wyandotte County District Court, began in 2010 with an internal investigation into an unrelated anonymous complaint about one employee.

In investigating that complaint, the Overland Park-based utility discovered that pornographic materials had been shared in the company email system, a violation of written employment policy.

The investigation led to the firing of 10 workers among 52 employees found to have received obscene materials in emails sent by one of the plaintiffs, Dennis “Chico” Janes.

Five of the fired workers, all older than 40 and covered by federal age discrimination law, filed suit, arguing that they were disciplined more harshly than younger employees who have not been fired for comparable or worse violations of company policies.

One of the plaintiffs dropped out of the case before the trial began in January. The remaining four — Janes, now 60; Eric Busenbark, 50; Jeff Josephson, 59; and Stacey Strange, 52 — won the back pay awards at trial and are eligible for future lost income awards from Judge Constance Alvey, who presided at the trial.

A spokeswoman for the utility said Kansas Gas Service was “disappointed in the verdict” and evaluating what to do next. The utility was represented by attorneys at Stinson Leonard Street.

The plaintiffs were represented by attorneys at the Popham Law Firm, the Keenan Law Firm and the Tomasic & Rehorn firm.

The jury decided that the four men, all of whom had prior unblemished disciplinary and performance records, received unequal enforcement of discipline for a first offense.

The utility said at the trial that the firings had nothing to do with age, but the jury found merit in the plaintiffs’ position that the utility had an initiative in place to hire younger employees and that younger workers with serious disciplinary issues had not been fired for first offenses.

To reach Diane Stafford, call 816-234-4359 or send email to stafford@kcstar.com.

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