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Former Missouri funeral home investigator alleges whistleblower retaliation in lawsuit

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Funeral home with new modern like a Sofa chester coffin style

Coffins displayed at a funeral home. 

JEFFERSON CITY — A former state funeral home investigator is accusing her ex-employer of sex discrimination, retaliation and breaking Missouri whistleblower law.

Kelly Ann Sedgwick said in a lawsuit filed Tuesday in Cole County that the state subjected her to sex discrimination then retaliated against her after she reported it.

The lawsuit also said Sheila Solon, acting director of the Division of Professional Registration, fired Sedgwick after she complained of mismanagement and illegal activities.

Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, named Solon, a former Republican state legislator, to the post in early 2021.

A spokesperson for the Department of Commerce and Insurance, which oversees the Division of Professional Registration, said Friday the department does not comment on pending litigation.

Lori Hayes, former executive director of the state Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors, said that Sedgwick uncovered a “disaster” at the Sweeney-Phillips & Holdren funeral home in Warrensburg, where court records described “human fat drippings/liquid on the floor” and called the site “an immediate fire hazard,” the Associated Press reported in December.

The state board overseeing funeral homes began requiring investigators to take pictures during inspections in September 2020.

But in March 2021, after Solon came on, she told the board that inspectors must no longer take photographs, the Associated Press reported, citing Bill Stalter, an attorney who blogs about and observes the industry.

He said Solon was “very clear that her instructions are coming directly from the governor.”

“Beginning in January 2021, when Ms. Solon became acting director, the Division engaged in a number of acts and practices in violation of Missouri law governing the State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors,” the lawsuit said.

It said Sedgwick “complained of, reported, and opposed various practices and conditions” including “instructing the Board how to investigate” and “the unfair treatment and termination of others who complained about these unlawful actions,” among other actions, the lawsuit said, including “transferring plaintiff without legal authority.”

The AP reported that in a move Sedgwick said was to prevent more write-ups, Solon transferred her so that she would have to perform inspections for other state agencies in addition to the funeral board. Members of the board opposed the action.

Sedgwick complained in writing to Solon, the lawsuit said, who fired her and at least one other employee “who had either reported illegal activity and/or objected to violations of policy, mismanagement and abuse of power.

“The practices of which plaintiff complained constituted reports of mismanagement, violations of policy, abuse of authority and violations of the laws governing the state Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors,” the lawsuit said.

“Prior to the termination, Governor Parson appointed four new members of the Board, at least two of which lacked the qualifications for the position. These Board members terminated plaintiff’s supervisor and terminated plaintiff,” the lawsuit said.

The Associated Press reported in December that Parson appointed the new members to the board amid complaints from the funeral home industry.

The lawsuit added, “Months later, these new Board members were replaced when it was determined they were not properly appointed.”

Only one of the four appointments Parson announced in September 2021 is still on the board, according to a review of a state website.

Sedgwick, of Jamestown, Missouri, also said after Solon took over that she was “subjected to unfair criticism of her job performance, abusive statements and action by her supervisors and unequal pay to similarly situated male employees.”

Sedgwick “reported sex discrimination and sex harassment to her supervisor and to Ms. Solon repeatedly through the spring and summer of 2021,” the lawsuit said.

The state investigated and ended its probe on Aug. 30, 2021, the lawsuit said. Sedgwick was terminated on Oct. 18, four days after Hayes, the funeral board executive director, was let go.

“The reasons given for the termination are unclear and pretextual,” the lawsuit said, adding that the state’s actions “constitute retaliation,” in violation of the Missouri Human Rights Act.

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