Government & Politics

Gov. Jay Nixon appoints judge facing disability discrimination lawsuit

Gov. Jay Nixon
Gov. Jay Nixon

Gov. Jay Nixon has appointed Brian May to serve as a judge for the 21st Judicial Circuit in St. Louis County, despite a jury decision last year ordering him to pay damages to a former employee who alleged discrimination.

A St. Louis jury last year awarded $7 million to Matthew Vacca, who claimed May and other Missouri Department of Labor supervisors created a hostile work environment in order to force him out of his job due to his disability. Vacca has a form of muscular dystrophy.

May was originally ordered to personally pay Vacca $500,000 in damages, but the judge lowered that to $5,000. The state was ordered to pay the remaining $6.5 million.

The lawsuit is now on appeal.

Vacca filed a discrimination complaint with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights in January 2011. Five months later May left the Department of Labor to begin his current job as the director of Nixon’s eastern Missouri office.

May was one of three applicants submitted to the governor for consideration by the 21st Circuit Judicial Commission. He previously served four terms in the Missouri House from 1993 to 2001, then worked 10 years as a managing partner of the Yates & May law firm in the St. Louis suburb of Clayton.

“Through his many years of experience as an attorney and as a public servant, Brian May has a great depth of knowledge that will serve him well as a Circuit Judge,” Nixon, a Democrat, said in a statement released Tuesday. “I am pleased to appoint him to serve the people of St. Louis County in this position.”

The Vacca case is one of a spate of discrimination lawsuits against executive branch agencies in recent years, including two that name Nixon specifically as a defendant.

Jury selection was supposed to begin last week in a lawsuit filed by longtime Democratic state Rep. Gracia Backer. The lawsuit alleges Backer was fired from her job in the Missouri Department of Labor because she complained to Nixon’s office that her boss was creating a hostile work environment and discriminating against older female employees.

The trial was delayed until February — after Nixon leaves office — because the judge said the proceedings needed more time than what was available in October.

Since 2011, juries have ordered the state to pay nearly $16 million in damages related to discrimination lawsuits against the executive branch. However, several of those verdicts are on appeal.