Government & Politics

KC Water Services ordered to pay $150K, with two more discrimination lawsuits looming

KC Water Services lab supervisor Wilbur Dunnell as 'Dr. H20'

Wilbur Dunnell is one of three water department employees who have sued Kansas City for employment discrimination. He appears here in a 2014 public education video as "Dr. H2O."
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Wilbur Dunnell is one of three water department employees who have sued Kansas City for employment discrimination. He appears here in a 2014 public education video as "Dr. H2O."

A Kansas City water department employee who sued the city for discrimination has been awarded $150,000 by a Jackson County jury, while two similar cases are headed for trial later this year.

The jury verdict Tuesday found that KC Water Services chemist LaDonna Nunley was a victim of a “sexually hostile work environment” at the city department, where she has worked for 24 years.

Nunley’s lawsuit also said she has been treated unfairly because she is black, having been passed over for promotion by younger, white female employees who were less qualified, and retaliated against for complaining. The jury sided with the city on those counts but found in favor of Nunley on the sexual harassment claim, awarding her $25,000 in compensation and $125,000 in punitive damages.

City officials said they are considering an appeal. City Manager Troy Schulte said the city is working on speeding up investigations of hostile work environment claims and does provide training to employees on proper behavior. The city is also addressing labor and management issues in the water department.

Two more employees from the same water department lab are pursuing lawsuits with similar claims, saying white employees were unfairly promoted ahead of black employees to management positions. One lawsuit, headed to trial in April, was filed by longtime lab supervisor Wilbur Dunnell, known locally as “Dr. H2O” from his educational videos and visits to schools to teach kids about the science of water quality.

The discrimination allegations in the three lawsuits go back as far as 2008, a time when the water department went through a revolving door of directors and gained a reputation as one of the municipal government’s most dysfunctional departments. In 2014, the city paid out $750,000 to settle a case brought by a former water department manager, Mable Ramey-Moore, who claimed discrimination after she was laid off.

That settlement came during a period of two years when the city paid out $8.5 million to resolve lawsuits brought by current and former employees from various departments.

The water department has since improved its reputation for delivering services but continues to face complaints from employees about discrimination, including racially and sexually hostile talk in the workplace.

In Nunley’s case, the city admitted at trial that “one comment was made that should not have been made,” said Chris Hernandez, a city spokesman.

Nunley had said a water department employee repeatedly made sexually graphic remarks to her despite her protests.

“We take these allegations seriously because we value all our employees and want them to feel welcomed and successful in our workplace,” Hernandez said in a written statement. “The city will implement corrective action in keeping with established city policies.”

City Attorney Cecilia Abbott said the Kansas City Law Department is considering appealing the punitive damage award in the Nunley case.

“It appears to be excessive for a municipality to be penalized in that amount,” she said.

Abbott noted that the case started out with seven counts before the jury. The judge dismissed four of the counts at the end of the plaintiff’s testimony, leaving three counts for the jury to consider, and jurors only ruled for the plaintiff on the one count.

No city employee involved in the case has yet faced discipline, a fact noted by Nunley’s attorney, David Lunceford.

“Basically, nothing had been done about it for years, even now,” Lunceford said. He said he took the jury’s verdict as a message to the city that it needs to do more to investigate discrimination complaints.

As part of the verdict, the city will have to pay the plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees, which Lunceford said will likely total more than the amount awarded by the jury.

Nunley returned to work Wednesday.

The two other water department employees pursuing lawsuits against the city, both black, are alleging racial discrimination in the promotions of two of the same white employees named in Nunely’s suit. Lunceford, who is representing one of the men, said they have suffered under a longtime pattern in which the department’s management promotes white employees at the expense of black employees.

“If you’re black, you can’t promote,” Lunceford said.

Dunnell, the lab supervisor, has remained in the same job position since he was hired in 1988 and has not been promoted to management positions though he is qualified for them, according to the suit. Instead, he has “observed a disguised yet disturbing pattern” in promotions, with white employees “leapfrogging” black employees, who experience a glass ceiling in the department.

The suit names two white employees, who Dunnell helped train or interview for their jobs but were promoted above Dunnell and other more senior black employees in the lab between 2008 and 2013. Dunnell claims he was retaliated against for complaining about discrimination and was not granted an interview when the position of lab manager opened up.

As Dr. H2O, Dunnell has hosted a science show on KCCG, the city government’s television channel, and performed science presentations at events for Mayor Sly James and the City Council. Most of the presentations, according to the suit, have been done on Dunnell’s own time and without additional pay.

In 2013, Dunnell won the Rich Noll Pacesetter Award for city employees and the S.T.E.M. Leader Award for promoting science in the community.

In 2009, Dunnell filed a discrimination complaint with the Missouri Human Rights Commission, but without success. He followed up in 2011 with a complaint to the city’s Equal Employment Office but never received a response, according to the suit. In 2013, Dunnell again filed complaints, this time with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and again with the Missouri Human Rights Commission.

Dunnell’s attorney, Dennis Egan, said it appeared to him that Dunnell’s complaints were not properly investigated.

“If you look at his objective qualifications and you talk to him for 10 minutes, you can’t help but come to the conclusion that he’s just as qualified as probably anyone in the department,” Egan said. “It does seem a little strange that he’s been stuck in the same position all these years.”

The other remaining lawsuit is brought by water department senior chemist Thomas Sanders and is scheduled for trial in May. Sanders, a city employee for 24 years, says in his lawsuit that he has been passed over for two promotions by white employees and retaliated against for complaining of discrimination.

The suit also says that while a white lab employee was reimbursed by the city for professional training classes, Sanders was told he would not be reimbursed. Sanders also accuses management of allowing a white employee to make racially hostile comments.

The Star’s Lynn Horsley contributed to this report.