Miss. SC upholds ruling against city, police officer

Jessica M. Karmasek Feb. 23, 2012, 3:20pm


JACKSON, Miss. (Legal Newsline) - The Mississippi Supreme Court last week affirmed a lower court's ruling in favor of a woman who claimed she was sexually harassed by a fellow police officer.

The Court, in its Feb. 16 opinion, said the "sufficiency" and "weight" of the evidence supported a Humphreys County jury's verdict.

In September 2006, Shirley Johnson filed a lawsuit against the city of Belzoni; Mickey Foxworth, individually and in his capacity as the city of Belzoni's police chief; and David James, a city police officer.

Johnson was hired by the city police department in July 2004 as a patrol officer policing school grounds, and was the only female police officer on the force at the time.

She remained the only female for about six months.

Johnson claimed that once she started working, James began to sexually harass her and that he did so for about a year.

She said she reported the harassment to her supervisor, Foxworth, but claimed insufficient action was taken to remedy the situation.

The matter eventually proceeded to trial, and the jury returned a unanimous verdict of $150,000 in favor of Johnson.

The defendants filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, or in the alternative, a new trial. The motion was denied and they appealed.

Of the many issues on appeal, the city, the police chief and officer argue that Johnson did not establish the existence of a "hostile work environment."

"In the instant case, Johnson described the conduct of James as outrageous, indecent and abusive. According to Johnson, James insulted her ability as a police officer because of her gender and made her the target of unwanted sexual innuendos and vulgar comments," Justice Leslie D. King wrote for the Court.

"Johnson testified that the behavior had continued for nearly a year on a daily basis. Johnson testified that she had reported the incident to Foxworth, who corroborated her testimony of reporting the harassment, and that she felt no action had been taken in regard to the complaints. Johnson testified that, as a result of James's behavior, she had suffered from physical and emotional injuries and felt as if she could no longer perform her occupational duties.

"Under the principles announced in Harris, there was sufficient evidence to indicate a hostile working environment caused by James's behavior, as well as the corresponding failure of Foxworth and the City of Belzoni to rectify the situation. This issue is without merit."

The defendants also claim that the amount awarded by the jury was not supported by evidence.

The Court said there was plenty of evidence to support the award.

"Johnson testified that James's behavior had affected her confidence, self respect and dignity. Johnson testified that James's behavior had offended and humiliated her. According to Johnson, she no longer wanted to be attractive to anyone. Johnson explained that she cut her hair very short so that no one would find her attractive," King wrote.

Johnson also testified that she started suffering from chest pains and headaches, and was unable to sleep.

The justice also noted that ultimately Johnson decided to take a management position elsewhere to escape the work environment at the police department.

"Both versions of events were presented to the jury; Johnson testified as to her alleged harassment, and the defense presented testimony of witnesses who denied any form of harassment. Thus, the case presented a question of witness credibility, which is for the jury alone," King wrote.

"In reviewing the weight of the evidence supporting a verdict, this Court will not 'pass upon the credibility of witnesses and, where the evidence justifies a verdict, it must be accepted as having been found worthy of belief.'"

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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