Federal Appeals Court Overturns Discrimination Verdict

A federal appeals court in Denver overturned a discrimination verdict that two lesbian former school administrators won against a Sheridan County school district in 2006.

A panel of the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Kathleen Milligan-Hitt and Kathryn R. Roberts weren’t entitled to $160,000 a Wyoming jury awarded them as damages.

The appeals court ruling states discriminating against homosexuals wasn’t clearly against the law in 2003, when both were passed over for employment as administrators in the Sheridan County School District No. 2.

The women charged in their lawsuit that they lost their jobs after parents complained the women were seen holding hands at a store in Billings, Mont. They denied the incident, but said district Superintendent Craig Dougherty confronted them angrily about it afterward.

Dougherty said he never expressed anger about the incident, and denied discriminating against the two.

According to court records, a Wyoming jury in 2006 found Dougherty unconstitutionally discriminated against the two women, but the jury declined to award damages against him personally. The jury did order the school district to pay $112,000 to Roberts and $48,000 to Milligan-Hitt. The money was never paid because the case was appealed.

The appeals court stated Dougherty wasn’t the final policymaker for the district, and so the district wasn’t responsible for his actions.

“We also conclude that in early 2003, the discrimination at issue here — on the basis of sexual orientation — was not clearly established to be unconstitutional,” the court ruling states. Dougherty was therefore immune from liability, the ruling states.

Greg Hacker, a Cheyenne lawyer representing Milligan-Hitt and Roberts, said his clients were disappointed with the court decision. He said they and he regard it as an “unfortunate and unjust result.”

“The appellate court’s decision rests on what we would view as a legal hyper-technicality, really,” Hacker said.

Hacker said his clients haven’t made a decision about whether they intend to ask all the judges on the federal appeals court to grant them another hearing on the case.

Hacker said his clients brought the lawsuit to “vindicate their rights and expose the discrimination that took place.” Even though the appeals court ruling overturned the monetary award, he said his clients felt they accomplished their goals.

Hacker said Milligan-Hitt and Roberts remain together. “If anything, this experience has brought them closer together,” he said.

Lawyer Kendal R. Hoopes of Sheridan, who represented the school district and Dougherty, said his clients were pleased with the decision.

“It reaffirms what the district’s position has been throughout the case, that there wasn’t any discrimination,” he said.