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A St. Louis jury has awarded $8.5 million to a St. Joseph woman who alleged race discrimination and retaliation against natural gas company Spire Inc.

Danielle McGaughy, a 47-year-old African-American, had reported a hostile environment while working for the company, according to attorneys who represented her.

The verdict, returned Thursday, is thought to be the largest in Missouri history for an African-American employee facing race discrimination and the second-largest for a current employee who chose to sue their employer over any type of discrimination. The jury assessed $1.3 million in compensatory damages and $7.2 million in punitive damages. The jurors’ decision was announced after a two-week trial in which the jury found the company liable. The law provides for additional relief, which the court said it will consider at a later date.

McGaughy began working for the formerly named Missouri Gas Energy in 2004, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the process.

“The company agreed that she received consistently positive performance reviews,” said the law firm of Keenan & Bhatia LLC, Kansas City, Missouri.

But McGaughy said she observed and experienced unfair treatment of African-Americans at the company’s St. Joseph facility. She provided an internal report on the allegations to the firm’s human resources department. In turn, the company began an investigation.

After the investigation was concluded, the supervisor whom McGaughy had reported for racially hostile actions asked that the company add more duties to her job, but with no additional pay. The company then ordered her to begin commuting to its Kansas City office with no extra pay or compensation.

At about the same time, McGaughy applied for a promotion to claims supervisor. Her case stated the company instead selected a white candidate who had no legal training or the same education as McGaughy.

“No direct racial comments were made to McGaughy, but McGaughy testified that several managers and co-workers questioned her competence, and excluded her from the workplace community,” Keenan & Bhatia lawyers said, adding that McGaughy testified at trial on the emotional impact of racism, retaliation and exclusion.

She said Spire declined to engage in any settlement talks and denied that any racial discrimination occurred, claiming the actions taken were done for business reasons.

Lawyers said much of the trial focused on subconscious bias: the idea that employers sometimes treat employees according to false racial stereotypes, even if they do not admit believing those stereotypes.

Spire responded to the jury’s verdict late Friday afternoon.

“Most of the allegations involved in this case date back to 2006 and extend through 2013, before Spire bought Missouri Gas Energy in September 2013,” said spokeswoman Jenny Gobble, who added the company plans to appeal.

“While we cannot speak to the culture under prior owners, we can speak to the company we are today and the values that we hold dear — safety, inclusion and integrity,” Gobble said. “At Spire, we employ a diverse work force, celebrate differences and embrace diverse backgrounds and perspectives. And, we treat everyone with care and respect. Always.”

Ray Scherer can be reached at ray.scherer@newspressnow.com. Follow him on Twitter: @SJNPScherer.

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