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In April, ex-KCK firefighter Jyan Harris won a racial discrimination lawsuit in federal court against his old employer, the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas. A federal jury awarded him $2.4 million in damages, money that Harris needs to support his family.
Eight months later, Harris hasn’t seen a cent.
“In some regards, I’m more scared (than before the verdict),” Harris said. “That verdict was announced in April, so some people think I’m a billionaire, but I still have trouble paying my bills.”
The verdict was supposed to end a multiyear legal battle, but Harris and the Unified Government are locked in a standoff over the size of the payout.
“The verdict is advisory on all issues other than emotional distress,” Ashley Hand, director of strategic communications for the Unified Government, told The Beacon in an email. “The court has not concluded the damages hearing so a judgment has not been entered.”
After the April verdict, county administrator Doug Bach said the Unified Government would meet with firefighters to discuss issues of racism and discrimination, and “develop an action plan to immediately address any of the concerns raised and publicly report on our progress in implementation later this year.”
So far, no progress reports have been made public. And for Harris, 50, the promise comes as too little, too late.
“I still haven’t been allowed to live,” he said.
Injury on the job revealed bias in how KCK firefighter leave is handled
Harris was injured on the job in 2013, when he was hit by a car. Harris said in his lawsuit that instead of granting him injury leave, the department forced him to use all of his personal sick leave.
In his initial complaint, he said: “Caucasian employees who were injured on the job were not forced to use any of their sick or vacation time while off work due to an on-the-job injury.”
And burning those days costs firefighters money. In February of the next year, the department will pay out a firefighter’s total unused sick and vacation time. Because his absence was filed as personal sick leave rather than injury leave, Harris received no compensation.
When he was cleared to go back to work, Harris was transferred to another station. By the time of the transfer, every firefighter had already picked their respective vacation days for the year. Harris was forced to try and find vacation days other firefighters hadn’t requested. He canceled two scheduled family vacations as a result.
KCK firefighter’s suspension took sharp toll on finances
After returning to work in 2016, Harris was quickly suspended from his job as a firefighter paramedic without pay. The United Government accused him of taking hours at a different city job while calling in sick to the fire department, and for inputting hours for both jobs at the same time. Harris said he’d simply traded shifts with another firefighter, a common and accepted practice in the department.
In 2018, instead of being reinstated, he was fired.
Overnight, Harris went from being the primary financial provider for his family to having no salary. He had to withdraw $56,800 from his state retirement account. Things as simple as falling in his backyard now prompt fears he’ll injure himself and be unable to cover his medical costs.
“They really destroyed my life,” he said.
Harris sued the Unified Government for racial discrimination. In the trial, issues of bias and shoddy record-keeping were revealed within the fire department. Unable to prove that Harris hadn’t simply traded shifts instead of “double-dipping,” county officials lost the case and publicly committed to bettering the department.
Since then, the Unified Government has touted its new class of incoming firefighters as the most diverse in KCKFD history. According to a recent news release, “56% of the recruitment class includes historically under-represented groups, including 31% female recruits.”
Advisory verdict means full payout isn’t guaranteed in discrimination case
The well-publicized jury verdict in Harris’ favor in April rocked the Unified Government, and many people assumed Harris would receive the full $2.4 million in short order. But the federal jury’s verdict was advisory; the numbers that jurors determined were appropriate are still subject to change based on the presiding judge’s findings.
“The judge has to decide whether or not it’s the correct amount,” said David Achtenberg, a professor at the University of Missouri – Kansas City School of Law. A judge can grant a remittitur, which lowers the award total, if the jury’s verdict is deemed excessive.
In Harris’ case, U.S. District Court Presiding Judge Julie Robinson sent the case to mediation under Judge James P. O’Hara. The two parties were to see if they could reach a settlement before she entered a final judgment.
If Harris and the Unified Government can’t come to an agreement, it is still within Robinson’s purview to decide what the verdict will be, Achtenberg said.
On Dec. 6, an order was issued administratively closing the case. In the order, the court said it had been informed both parties had reached a settlement, but Harris and his representative said no settlement was ever reached.
“That’s a form of continued harassment,” Harris said.
Sarah Liesen, an attorney for Harris, said they’re hopeful a settlement can be reached by March.
“We’re still in negotiations over the terms, but we are adamant about a swift resolution,” she said.
The continued fight for compensation has left Harris drained. As his wife sleeps at night, he finds himself awake, worrying about whether he’ll ever see justice. Most of all, he’d like an explanation from the county he served for decades.
“There can be no closure for me because there’s no accountability. They’ve yet to apologize to me.”