‘They lied’: Medic's lawyer says Mo. city officials covered up harassment in FD
Documents show Kansas City’s civil rights department investigated and substantiated her complaints that her supervisor “taunted and terrorized her”
By Katie Moore
The Kansas City Star
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A lawyer who represented a Kansas City paramedic’s family in a lawsuit against the city last week says officials covered up their own findings that the woman was discriminated against and harassed by a supervisor before she died.
After winning the lawsuit last Friday with a $100,000 verdict, attorney Kevin Baldwin shared documents with The Star that show Kansas City’s Civil Rights and Equal Opportunity Department investigated and substantiated the woman’s complaints that her supervisor “taunted and terrorized her.”
But when the paramedic filed another complaint with the state, the city denied the harassment had occurred.
“The city attorney’s office was well aware of the prior investigation,” Baldwin said. “It amazes me that they can lie on a responsive governmental investigative document and not be held accountable for it.”
The paramedic, Giovanna Vittori, had complained that she was bullied by her supervisor at the Kansas City Fire Department after changing jobs to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder from responding to the scene of a violent death.
Baldwin said city officials also had a fitness for duty report changed to make it more difficult to Vittori to return to her job after she had been placed on leave.
While pursuing a lawsuit against the city, Vittori died April 10, 2018 from a prescription drug overdose. Her fitness for duty report and a home foreclosure notice were found on her bed, and her attorneys and family think her death was a suicide.
By agreement with Vittori’s family, Baldwin continued the lawsuit against the city, winning at trial March 17 in Jackson County Circuit Court. The money from the verdict is to go to Vittori’s two children.
Despite that victory, Baldwin said he’s not hopeful the case will bring positive change. The reason: He sees no accountability for the individuals responsible at City Hall and the fire department.
“The reason is because nobody’s ever made an example,” he said. “Show me one time where the fire department has been proactive — to receive an internal investigative report such as this and done something proactive — did training, did discipline, did anything. They wait until a jury renders a verdict. And even then they don’t change. That’s why we’re here. Same with the city.”
Assistant fire chief Jimmy Walker said the department has no comment on any portion of the case.
The city did not respond to questions about the existence of the equal opportunity office’s document or the jury’s verdict.
‘Found to be credible’
Vittori had been a medic since 2006 and began working at the fire department in 2010.
In 2014, she responded to a gruesome scene where a man had shot himself in the head. She developed PTSD.
To accommodate her condition, she was moved to the fire department’s billing unit.
Two years later, Vittori filed a complaint with the city’s equal opportunity office saying her supervisor, Jane Kern, told others about her mental health issues. She said Kern would approach the area where she sat and intentionally startle her, tell others she was crazy and expressed doubt about Vittori’s condition.
City officials investigated and found her complaints were true.
On Jan. 31, 2017, Michael Kitchen, manager of labor and employee relations in the city’s human resources department, sent a letter to then-fire chief Paul Berardi informing him the city’s investigation supported Vittori’s complaint.
“Based on the the initial findings of the investigation into this complaint, the EEO Office has sufficient information to find that Kern violated the City’s Equal Employment Opportunity Discrimination/Harassment Policy,” Kitchen wrote.
A little more than a month later, Kymberly Lewis-Daniels, the city’s equal employment opportunity manager, sent Berardi a detailed report of the investigation, which concluded that Kern had violated the city’s discrimination and harassment policy.
The eight-page report reveals information from interviews with coworkers and Kern. Three employees corroborated parts of Vittori’s accounts, including inappropriate comments being made about Vittori’s disability, and two employees said Kern would startle Vittori.
“Their statements were found to be credible based on the nature and consistency of their statements and the Complainant’s,” the letter said.
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Kern denied the allegations when interviewed by human resources.
The equal employment office recommended Kern be sent a letter of reprimand and sign a copy of the city’s policy on prohibited behaviors.
But after Vittori hired Baldwin to represent her in the spring 2017 and filed another complaint, the city took an opposite view.
In an October 2017 letter to the Missouri Commission on Human Rights, Saskia Jacobse, a city attorney, wrote: “The City denies the allegations made by Ms. Vittori about Ms. Kern.”
Baldwin said that was a lie and, in his view, a cover-up.
“Her representation to a state investigative agency was to deny what they themselves have found,” Baldwin said of Jacobse.
Kern later testified she had not received a reprimand. An annual evaluation showed she was rated “exceeds expectations” on the equal employment opportunity category. She was given a merit raise in January 2018, records show.
She is still employed by the fire department.
Changing a report
Vittori’s discrimination lawsuit went to trial March 7. Jurors heard from her co-workers and family.
Baldwin also presented evidence showing a human resources employee had a report changed to make it harder for her to go back to work.
Vittori had been placed on unpaid leave and sent to fitness for duty evaluations. A psychologist recommended she not return to work “until there is evidence of improvement in her overall level of symptoms,” he wrote in a report.
Baldwin says a human resources employee asked for a more stringent recommendation despite not being qualified to assess someone’s mental health status.
The report was amended with more requirements including counseling and “evidence of willingness to report to work and complete assignments as directed without displaying attitudes and behavior that led to this referral.”
“Good - that’s a better recommendation. Thanks!” Teri Casey, who is now director of human resources for the city, replied in an email about the revised report.
Baldwin also questioned why other options to help Vittori cope, like moving her into an office with a door or allowing her to work from home, were not allowed.
Baldwin said the case took four attorneys, four support staff and five years “to demonstrate that they lied, they misled the Missouri Commission on Human Rights, they didn’t follow their own policies and that they interfered with a medical report that would allow her to return.”
“Her dad felt vindicated in the verdict, that finally there was some public acknowledgment,” Baldwin said.
“Hopefully what we did will help protect everybody with PTSD in the workplace. Hopefully what we did will protect other paramedics with PTSD, first responders with PTSD.”
Suicide is always preventable. If you are having thoughts of suicide or feeling suicidal, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline immediately at 988. Counselors are also available to chat at www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org. Remember: You deserve to be supported, and it is never too late to seek help. Speak with someone today.