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A Missouri social services agency supervisor is personally liable for discriminating against a subordinate whose religious beliefs prevented him from approving homosexuals as foster parents, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled July 19. Phillips v. Collings, No. 00-2176. The court affirmed a federal jury’s award of $1,500 in compensatory damages and $25,000 in punitive damages to Larry Phillips, a former social worker in the state’s Department of Social Services (DSS) who filed the civil rights claim. The court refused to overturn a lower court ruling that supervisor Cathy Collings was not entitled to qualified immunity. Phillips received favorable evaluations until he discussed his religious convictions with Collings in 1995, the court said. Although superiors scotched Collings’ initial recommendation that Phillips be fired, she later wrote a negative evaluation, described by the court as “unprecedented in length and malediction,” that suggested Phillips needed remedial training. At Phillips’ request, he was transferred to another division and, according to the court, was “later terminated for reasons unrelated to this appeal.” The court acknowledged that “[a] poor performance review, standing alone, typically does not constitute an adverse employment action,” and would not normally trigger federal remedies, but held that the cumulative effect of Collings’ conduct, in which she “did everything she could to disrupt his employment,” took the case beyond the ordinary. The transfer did not let Collings off the hook because her actions drove him to request it, the court said. Collings was not entitled to qualified immunity because an employee’s right to accommodation of religious views is well-settled, the court said. It added that Collings could have made that accommodation by referring the rare cases where gay couples sought to become foster parents to another social worker. Phillips’ attorney, Kansas City, Mo., sole practitioner Todd A. Nielsen said, “The smoking gun was a handwritten memo in which Collings spelled out, ‘Fire this guy because of his religious beliefs’ in terms just about that blunt.” He added that only a procedural error by Phillips’ previous attorney prevented him from raising a claim of discriminatory termination. Although the ostensible reason for Phillips’ firing was his operation of a part-time herb-selling business without approval, other employees who participated in the venture were not fired, he claims. Phillips was also represented by the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), an organization founded by evangelist Pat Robertson to litigate religious issues. An ACLJ press release claimed that other DSS employees joined Collings in allegedly subjecting Phillips “to the worst kinds of verbal and physical intimidation you can imagine.” The 8th Circuit noted that the jury cleared some defendants named by Phillips, but deadlocked on others. Nielsen noted that the defendants over whom the jury deadlocked have settled with his client. Although noting that the DSS paid those settlements and provided counsel to Collings, he would not speculate on whether the agency would pay her judgment. Collings declined to comment.

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