Appeals Court Hears Arguments Today in Case of MD 'Trooper Dad' Denied Family Leave

Affiliate: ACLU of Maryland
January 26, 2001 12:00 am

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RICHMOND, VA –The American Civil Liberties Union will appear before a federal appeals court here today to argue against the Maryland State Police Department’s appeal of a $375,000 jury award to Kevin Knussman, the state trooper who was illegally denied leave from work to care for his newborn daughter because he is male.

“The Maryland State Police have consistently portrayed this case as much ado about nothing, mocking Knussman’s staunch family values, and suggesting that any injuries he suffered he brought upon himself by daring to challenge them,” said ACLU of Maryland cooperating attorney Robin R. Cockey, of the law firm, Cockey, Brennan & Maloney in Salisbury, MD.

Trooper Knussman’s ordeal began in 1994, when he requested several weeks of leave from his job as a police flight paramedic to care for his newborn daughter and his wife, who had suffered life-threatening pregnancy complications.

Maryland State Police personnel manager Jill Mullineaux and other police commanders acting at her direction contended that only women could qualify for parental leave, because only women can breast feed a baby. Mullineaux told Knussman that as a man he was ineligible for childrearing leave unless his wife was “in a coma or dead.” Knussman was ordered to return to work, and threatened that if he did not obey he would be reported as AWOL, a firing offense.

In its own investigation, the Maryland State Police’s Fair Practices Office found that Mullineax’s conduct toward Knussman was wrongful, but the department suppressed this ruling until long after its issuance, when it was turned up in the ACLU litigation.

In February of 1999, a federal court jury in Baltimore found that the Maryland State Police’s treatment of Knussman violated his equal protection rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as well as the Family and Medical Leave Act.

The jury awarded the Knussman family $375,000 in recognition of the severe emotional distress he suffered and to compensate him for the irreplaceable loss of time with his infant daughter.

“After listening to all of the witnesses and evaluating the evidence, the jury understood that this is a case about real-life family values,” said ACLU of Maryland attorney Deborah A. Jeon. “What the Knussmans are fighting for — time for families to be together to support and sustain one another — is one of the greatest treasures we can have in life.”

While not challenging the jury’s finding that police officials intentionally discriminated against Knussman and violated his rights, the State nevertheless is asking the appeals court to override the decision of the jury by giving Jill Mullineaux governmental immunity from liability for monetary damages.

Alternatively, Maryland officials argue that even if Mullineaux’s plea for immunity is denied, the damage award should be reduced. Both of these arguments have already been considered and rejected by trial judge Walter Black, in his resolution of the state’s motion to set aside the verdict.

Knussman said he is proud of his 23-year career as a Maryland State Trooper and of his family’s legal fight. He has been a full-time father since his retirement from the state police force in July 1999.

“We are fortunate to have been able to bring substantial attention to the issue of family leave and the need for equal treatment of men and women with respect to child care benefits,” Knussman said. “That, in turn, has benefitted thousands of public safety personnel. It’s very gratifying to hear from troopers and others that our efforts have enabled them to take more time to meet family needs. We have faith in the court system, and truly believe that justice will triumph in the end.”

Attorney Sara L. Mandelbaum of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project agreed. “For three decades now, the Supreme Court has condemned the sort of overbroad generalizations and stereotypes about ‘appropriate’ gender roles that the Maryland State Police applied here,” she said. “What more does it take to convince the Maryland State Police commanders that fathers have rights too?”

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