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Jury: LR must pay ex-worker $323,000

Updated: Jul 30

FILE — Little Rock City Hall is shown in this 2019 file photo.

A fired city of Little Rock worker is due more than $323,000 from the city for his wrongful termination after a Pulaski County jury found that the dismissal violated Roderick Keith King Hickman’s civil rights.

Adding in court-ordered sanctions against the city already imposed for destroying evidence and deliberately drawing out the proceedings, that total rises to more than $392,000. That award has the potential to grow even more as the victory for the former Parks and Recreation employee makes him eligible to have the city forced to pay all of his legal expenses for more than six years of litigation. Court filings show Hickman’s lawyers regularly earn at least $350 an hour. Furthermore, the city could be required to put him back on the payroll.

Jurors deliberated about three hours Thursday to side with the 51-year-old Pine Bluff native after a three-day trial. Civil trials do not require unanimous verdicts, with the 12-member panel ruling in a 9-3 majority on each of Hickman’s four complaints about how his supervisors had violated the Arkansas Civil Rights Act by firing him without just cause.

The seven-man, five-woman jury found he had been terminated for issues involving his mental health and his dispute with a private school his daughter had attended.

Jurors were unanimous in finding that Little Rock must pay Hickman $122,000 in compensatory damages, representing his lost salary and benefits, plus another $101,000 to cover the college loans he took out to get his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, which would have qualified for a loan-forgiveness program if he had not been fired. The jury similarly imposed another $100,000 in punitive damages.

City lawyers told the judge that a decision on whether to appeal the verdict would be made in the coming days. The city can also still dispute the damages award.

H i c k m a n h ad s o u g h t $370, 163 in compensatory damages, with $245,000 for back wages and $125,163 for loans. The decision on whether Little Rock has to put Hickman back on the payroll and pay his legal fees is up to the judge, Chip Welch, and won’t come for at least another three weeks after he hears more arguments from the sides.

Earlier this month, Welch ordered the city to pay $69,614 of Hickman’s legal fees — half the amount requested — in sanctions for what the judge described as a “stall game” that drew out the litigation by 3½ years, during which evidence — three caches of emails — was destroyed and a key witness died from covid-19 in October 2020, Richelene Irby-Harris, former parks deputy director. Hickman had filed his suit in October 2016, less than 2½ months after he was fired.

The loss of those emails forced Hickman to turn to the Freedom of Information Act to collect city records to support his suit, records that he knew how to find due to his experience with Parks department operations.

“This court attempts to emphasize that there is much more than [evidence destruction] in his case. There was for a 3 ½-year period a ‘stall game’ of which spoliation was only a part,” Welch wrote. “The court determines that the misconduct of the defendant resulted in the doubling [of] the efforts of the plaintiff in preparing his case by lengthening the matter 3½ years.” City lawyers denied deliberate wrongdoing, and the judge took great effort to make it clear that he was not criticizing the city’s current legal team, which only took over the defense in December.

Jurors were not told about the judge’s sanctions. But they were instructed that if they believed the city deliberately destroyed the emails, knowing how important those messages could be to Hickman’s case, they could assume those materials would have been unfavorable for the city.

Hickman’s attorney, Luther Sutter, told jurors that his client had been fired over a fabricated theft accusation, stating that a verdict in his favor would restore the good name of a man who was a conscientious and hard-working city employee and a devoted single father trying to protect his child.

“More than anything in this world, he wants you to lift this burden of being called a thief,” the attorney said, saying that the email destruction was part of a “cover-up.” “Why did the city destroy these emails? I submit it’s because they didn’t want you to get a clear picture.” His supervisors had no evidence he’d stolen anything from anyone but fired him anyway, a termination that was illegal because Hickman was engaging in protected activity in his dispute with the school, Sutter said.

“The evidence shows there was no theft,” the attorney said. “What happens between Mr. Hickman and the school was just between Mr. Hickman and the school.” Hickman, who went to law school and now earns about $65,000 working for the U.S. Treasury, was the Parks department’s safety and training coordinator, earning about $45,000 in February 2016 when he reserved two pavilions at Murray Park for Johnson’s Montessori School’s June 2016 family field day. Hickman, whose daughter was a student, was a member of the booster club, and he used his half-price city discount to rent the pavilions for $65.

But he had a falling out with the school in April 2016, involving accusations that his daughter had been abused at the school, which he subsequently reported to authorities. Hickman’s daughter was subsequently discharged from the school, and Hickman canceled the pavilion reservations without telling school officials, although there was evidence he told other booster club members. He said the school owed him $200 for remaining tuition but he was never able to collect it.

The school only discovered the cancellation when field-day organizers arrived to begin setting up for the festivities. Another booster member, Starla Frazier, who was then-Mayor Mark Stodola’s executive assistant and a former Parks co-worker of Hickman, contacted the department, which was able to open the pavilions, and the field day went on as planned. Frazier, a childhood friend of Ci ty M a n a ge r B r u ce Moore, also told Moore about what had happened. Moore is the final arbiter for fired employees who appeal terminations, and he ultimately upheld Hickman’s firing in August 2016.

Frazier, whose son attended the school with Hickman’s daughter, told jurors she was upset with Hickman about the cancellation as well as an attempt by him to involve her in his complaint about the school, but said she played no role in getting him fired.

Hickman was f ired on three grounds cited by his supervisors over the pavilion incident: theft of the $65 reservation fee, which officials contended he had gotten from the school; conduct unbecoming a professional; and gross misconduct.

But at this week’s trial, the city could not show proof the money had come from the school. Hickman told jurors he had paid out of his own pocket so he rightfully collected the refund. He said when he learned the city had gone ahead and allowed the school to use the pavilions, even though the rent was not paid, he paid the fee again, telling jurors he wanted to make sure his issues with the school were kept separate from his employment.

“I am not a thief,” Hickman said, testifying on the seventh anniversary of his termination. “I did not steal $65. It was my own money.” Hickman said that the department director, Truman Tolefree, immediately demanded that Hickman withdraw his complaint and “make it right with the school.” Hickman told jurors he refused and his immediate supervisor then recommended termination, which Tolefree subsequently approved, following city firing procedures. Jurors heard differing accounts from Tolefree and the city manager, each of whom had to sign off on the termination.

Tolefree, who retired in 2017 and is now the pastor of Bethel AME Church in Little Rock, told jurors that he had endorsed the firing recommendation after questioning Hickman himself. He said Hickman said the school owed him money so he was keeping the $65. Tolefree said his understanding was the money had come from the school.

“He said he took the money,” Tolefree testified, saying he never raised the issue of Hickman’s complaint about the school. “He admitted that to me and he gave me the reason why … because the school owed him money. The basis for termination was theft.” The city manager said he approved Hickman’s firing based on the recommendation of a hearing conducted by the city’s human resources department with a neutral arbiter as part of the termination procedure. Moore said he understood that the pavilion rent had never been paid. “He was given money to pay for the pavilions from the school and he chose not to,” Moore told jurors.

Hickman’s bosses wanted him fired because of his complaint about the school, his lawyer told the jury. But they also wanted him gone because he had asked for workplace accommodations for his mental health and also complained that he had been discriminated against because he had sought consideration for those health issues of depression and anxiety, all civil rights violations.

As an example, Hickman said he’d asked that Tolefree leave the door open any time they had to meet in Tolefree’s office, a request the supervisor denied. Jurors saw a memo describing how Hickman had become physically ill after a meeting in which Tolefree would not leave the door open.

Deputy City Attorney Alan Jones told jurors in his closing statement that the city had done a “terrible job” in handing over evidence in the run-up to the trial. But the evidence before them clearly showed no deliberate wrongdoing by the city, he said, urging them not to be swayed by emotion and to absolve the city of wrongdoing.

“The right verdict … is one for the city of Little Rock,” Jones said. “The city of Little Rock did not discriminate … did not retaliate and did not violate the Arkansas Civil Rights Act.” He further reminded jurors that Hickman was fired for more than just theft, but also for his conduct. The city was not involved with his school dispute until Hickman intermingled his roles as parent and employee, involving the city by canceling the pavilions with no notice to the school, Jones said.

Little Rock has a three-tier termination process, designed to be objective and to protect workers’ rights, and Hickman got every opportunity to avail himself of it, Jones said. An independent hearing officer heard the case against Hickman but still found he should be fired, the attorney told jurors.

Jurors seemed to struggle to make their findings, sending a note to the judge after about two hours of deliberations stating that they did not “feel comfortable” deciding the case under the instructions provided by the judge in light of the evidence they’d seen.

Hickman’s lawyer asked for a mistrial, but the judge instead responded in writing, urging them to continue to try to resolve the case. The jury reached its verdict about an hour later. Hickman’s claim that the city had violated state whistleblower-protection laws in his firing was dismissed during the trial by the judge who found that those laws did not apply in his circumstances.

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