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St. Louis jury awards disabled former judge $7 million

St. Louis jury awards disabled former judge $7 million

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ST. LOUIS • A St. Louis jury has awarded $7 million to an administrative law judge who said he was fired due to his disability.

Matthew Vacca’s suit against the Workers’ Compensation Division of the Missouri Division of Labor & Industrial Relations, Judge Karla Boresi and the division director, Brian May, also claimed that Boresi and May created a hostile work environment to force him out of his job.

After a nearly two-week trial, jurors on Sept. 25 awarded Vacca, 55, $4 million in actual damages and $3 in punitive damages, including $500,000 in punitive damages against May.

Boresi was dismissed from the suit before jurors began deliberating.

On Wednesday, a St. Louis judge will decide what the department should pay for Vacca’s attorneys’ fees and costs. He could also give Vacca his job back, said Joan Swartz, one of Vacca’s attorneys.

“He felt vindicated,” Swartz said of Vacca in an interview Friday. “He felt like he was heard and somebody listened to him and believed him and saw him for the first time on these issues.”

“I took this verdict as a very strong message. The jury had strong opinions about what the department had done,” she said. Swartz said that only nine of the 12 jurors had to agree on a verdict, but the jury was unanimous.

A spokeswoman for the Missouri Attorney General’s office, which represented the department, Boresi and May, declined to comment Friday.

Vacca was hired as a judge in 1992. He later developed a “very difficult form of muscular dystrophy,” a progressive, degenerative neuromuscular disorder, Swartz said.

In 2007, he asked to be allowed to park closer to the office, and the division agreed.

In 2008, he fell in the restroom because of improperly installed grab bars.

That year, he was allowed to conduct trials for two days a week and work from home three days a week writing decisions and preparing for trials.

Vacca’s suit claims that when Boresi became chief judge and May became division director, they targeted the accommodations that allowed him to do his job.

Boresi, his suit says, knew that stress made his condition worse yet went to “extraordinary efforts’ to make his work environment more stressful.

Swartz said that Boresi gave Vacca the worst performance review of his career, his office was moved and the department targeted his work schedule.

Vacca complained internally.

He had also already begun the application for long-term disability, both to protect himself because of the actions of Boresi and May and because it takes months for a decision.

He was granted long-term disability, she said, but wanted to continue to work.

But on June 7, 2011, May said Vacca had in effect resigned by being granted the benefits, court documents say. May claimed Vacca could no longer meet the requirements for a judge, the suit says.

Vacca filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Missouri Commission on Human Rights. He sued in 2012.

Swartz said Vacca wanted to continue working.

“If he had his druthers he’d still be an admininstrative law judge,” she said. “He always wanted to work.”

“Work was what he had. He’s not going to be able to travel extensively or take up golf,” Swartz said.


EDITOR’S NOTE: Earlier versions of this story contained an incorrect spelling of Joan Swartz’s name, and did not reflect the fact that Boresi had been dismissed from the case before jurors began deliberating. This version has been corrected.

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