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After years of big payouts, Missouri reduces the cost of lawsuits against the state

After years of big payouts, Missouri reduces the cost of lawsuits against the state

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JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri taxpayers forked over considerably less money to settle lawsuits against state government in the most recent fiscal year.

According to Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s office, the state paid $10 million to plaintiffs who had accused the state of a variety of misdeeds, ranging from sex and race discrimination to negligence.

That’s down from $29.3 million in the previous year and $35.9 million in the 2018 fiscal year.

It represents the lowest payout total since 2015.

Chris Nuelle, a spokesman for Schmitt, said the reduction was the result of an intentional plan.

“Early on in our administration, we carefully analyzed and reviewed Legal Expense Fund expenditures. Since then, we have been intentionally aggressive in litigating cases wherever possible to protect precious taxpayer dollars,” Nuelle said.

The cost of lawsuits against the state has been an issue in recent years for state budget writers, who must set aside money for legal expenses rather than steer those dollars into schools, social services and other state programs.

Among solutions that have been suggested is making each state department responsible for paying out the penalties in order to make agencies more accountable.

Many of the big ticket payouts, for example, stem from employee discrimination and harassment cases brought against the Missouri Department of Corrections.

In January, Missouri paid out more than $2 million to a white employee of the minimum security Kansas City Re-Entry Center, after a jury agreed he was subjected to racial discrimination and a hostile work environment.

As part of a 2017 effort to boost transparency, former Attorney General Josh Hawley began reporting a monthly tally of how much the state has paid out in legal expenses to people who have sued.

Although the total payout was down for the fiscal year ending June 30, it could skyrocket in the coming year.

The state still hasn’t paid out more than $114 million to 13,000 current and former correctional officers who won a class-action case in Cole County over unpaid overtime.

In that case, which dates to 2012, employees alleged the Department of Corrections did not pay guards for work done once they arrived at their prison.

Most officers are stationed within a prison’s “security envelope,” meaning they have to go through a search and a metal detector, turn over cellphones, tablets and any personal property, and are in uniform and in close proximity to prisoners, or “on duty and expected to respond,” the whole time.

In addition to the base award, the jury agreed to tack on a 9% interest charge to the payout, meaning the state’s decision to appeal the case means the total could become much larger at a time when Gov. Mike Parson has already slashed spending because of the pandemic-induced economic downturn.

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