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Fired Pittsburgh Jail Guard Wins Over $850,000 in Retaliation Case

by Jacob Barret

In October 2022, a jury in the federal Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania awarded $400,000 in compensatory damages to former Allegheny County Jail (ACJ) guard Jeffery Kengerski in his federal employment rights case against jail officials.

Kengerski worked as a guard at the jail beginning in 2002. Over a 13-year period, he had a spotless employment record and was promoted to captain. Then in April 2015, he informed supervisor Simon Wainwright that another high-ranking jail guard, Maj. Robyn McCall, had made racially offensive comments about Kengerski’s young biracial niece and sent racially offensive text messages.

Less than a week after complaining about McCall’s conduct, Kengerski was disciplined for “switching shifts.” Known as “buddy days,” this was an approved and officially sanctioned practice in which ACJ guards could work each other’s shifts without making any change in the schedule or in their pay. But Kengerski received a five-day suspension and was ordered to pay back wages that he “fraudulently procured.”

Not coincidentally, according to the complaint he later filed, Kengerski had also attended several meetings of ACJ administrators, where he criticized jail policy and practices as unfair and potentially illegal. Meanwhile McCall was not punished or sanctioned for her racist harassment. Rather, she remained employed until her pension vested.

Kengerski then applied for but was denied a promotion to Major. The position was given to another guard who had not applied for the position. Over the next few months, he faced repeated disciplinary allegations and complaints, all of which he was able to prove unfounded.

In November 2015, in accordance with ACJ policy, Kengerski reported an incident of possible sexual harassment which had been brought to his attention by another guard. The report was filed with his supervisor, who was later terminated for a separate sexual harassment incident. Kengerski was then fired. Why? For “interfering” in the very same sexual harassment investigation he had reported.

With the aid of attorney Margaret Schuetz Coleman of the Law Offices of Timothy P. O’Brian in Pittsburgh, Kengerski brought suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq, and 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging the reasons given for his termination were a pretext for retaliation against him for reporting McCall’s racial harassment. But the district court said he had failed to identify an unlawful policy at the jail, so it granted Defendants summary judgment.

Kengerski then turned to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which vacated the district court’s decision on July 29, 2021. See: Kengerski v. Harper, 6 F.4th 531 (3d Cir. 2021). On remand, the district court denied Defendants’ motion for summary judgment on October 19, 2021, sending the case to trial. See: Kengerski v. Cty. of Allegheny, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 200820 (W.D. Pa.).

On October 7, 2022, the jury made its compensatory damages award. On January 20, 2023, the district court then awarded Kengerski an additional $223,361 in backpay plus front pay of $229,255. See: Kengerski v. Cty. of Allegheny, No. 2:17-cv-1048-NR, 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10628 (W.D. Pa.). That brought his total award so far to $852,616; however, he still has a motion pending for prejudgment interest on the backpay award. The county is also on the hook for his attorney’s fees, which the district court has yet to determine.

Following the jury verdict, Kengerski told WPXI that he hoped it would encourage other guards to come forward about what he called a pattern of misconduct at ACJ. The County, on the other hand, told the news station it was “extremely disappointed in the jury’s decision.”

Additional source: WPXI 

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