On Appeal, Officer Loses $7.0 Million Of $7.5 Million Judgment

Danny Holmes was a police officer of the Kansas City, Missouri Police Department. In January 2003, a KCPD homicide detective, Michael Hutcheson, requested that Officer Holmes and Officer Shawn Hamre assist in a missing persons search for a man named Guy Coombs. While investigating, Holmes was reporting to Detective Hutcheson by cell phone. The officers were directed to an apartment in midtown Kansas City. Based on the lead, Detective Hutcheson instructed the officers to do a “knock-and-talk” and show Coombs’s photo to the apartment’s occupants. At trial, a former narcotics detective testified that one of the apartment’s occupants, Mr. Edward Henderson, was the target of an undercover drug investigation.

Officers Holmes and Hamre knocked on the apartment door and told Henderson they were attempting to locate Coombs and wanted to show him a photo. Henderson opened the door, and they walked into the apartment. Holmes saw another man sitting on the apartment floor with a gun beside him. He yelled, “Gun!,” drew his weapon, and instructed the man to move away from the weapon. The officers handcuffed the two men and patted them down. Holmes put the gun into the freezer to secure it.

Holmes called Detective Hutcheson who told him, “Don’t recover anything. Don’t effect an arrest. Just leave everything. Come down here, write it up, and we’ll take it over from there.” The officers took the men outside the apartment, uncuffed them, and asked them to wait until the officers had left the building before they re-entered the apartment. As the officers were leaving the apartment, Holmes saw a box of shells on the floor. He asked the men if the shells belonged to either of them; after they said no, he said, “Well, I’ll just hold on to them,” and took them with him.

Holmes subsequently wrote a report as a supplement to the missing persons report; it was approved by the desk sergeant, and faxed to Detective Hutcheson’s attention by Holmes. The report did not mention that the officers had been in Henderson’s apartment. Coombs’s body was discovered shortly thereafter, and Henderson was charged with his murder.

Almost three years later, Holmes was contacted by a prosecutor handling Coombs’s murder case. He told the prosecutor about the events of that evening; she accused him of lying. She testified that nothing in the police reports she had been given indicated that Holmes had been in Henderson’s apartment. Holmes testified that he remembered the gun shells, went to his patrol car to retrieve them, and then showed them to her. After the prosecutor complained to KCPD, an Internal Affairs investigation was conducted and, 17 months later, the City’s civil service board upheld the Department’s decision to terminate him.

Holmes sued the City, alleging he was terminated because he was a whistleblower, that he was the victim of race discrimination, and that the City had breached its contract with him. A jury found for Holmes on the claim for race discrimination and awarded him $250,000 actual damages and $250,000 in punitive damages. The jury also agreed with the whistleblowing claim and awarded him $3,500,000. The jury further found a breach of contract and assessed an additional $2,500,000 in damages.

When the City appealed, an appeals court stripped Holmes of $7.0 million of the $7.5 million in damages awarded by the jury. The Court started by finding that since Holmes was an “at-will” employee, the Department had no contract with him, and thus there was no basis for the $2.5 million in breach-of-contract damages. The Court held that “an employer in Missouri may generally terminate an employee for cause or without cause, absent a contrary contractual or statutory provision. While, under a Missouri statute, an officer who has completed the probationary period may only be subject to discharge or removal for cause, the statute gives the officer a right to a public hearing before the Board. Consequently, the statute gives the officer a property right in continued employment. The property right entitles the officer to due process before termination. However, we do not agree with Holmes that the statute provides an officer with a contractual right to sue for damages for wrongful termination.”

Next to go were the $3.5 million in damages for Holmes’ whistleblower claim. The Court found that under Missouri law, “public entities are protected from suit in tort by sovereign immunity. The Board is a legal subdivision of the state and, as such, is protected by sovereign immunity in its operation and maintenance of a police force, as long as the immunity has not been waived by statute. This immunity extends to protect the entity against suits for wrongful discharge by former employees, unless some exception applies.”

The Court did sustain the $500,000 damage award flowing from Holmes’ race discrimination claim. The Court ruled that “through evidence of the disparate discipline afforded to white officers for similar acts, Holmes set forth legal and substantial evidence on the facts essential to liability from which the trier of fact could reasonably decide the case.” The Board argued that it “could not be held responsible for a discrimination violation because it was the Chief who made disciplinary decisions concerning other officers. The law defines ‘employer’ to include any person directly acting in the interest of an employer. The Board’s argument would permit employers to escape liability for discrimination against employees by delegating decision-making to their supervisory employees. We do not believe that in developing evidence of discrimination through disparate treatment, Holmes’s case was required to draw a distinction between the actions of the Chief and the actions of the Board.”

Holmes v. Kansas City Bd. of Police Com’rs ex rel. Its Members, 2012 WL 265885 (Mo. App. W.D. 2012).