Thursday, September 12, 2013
Alabama State University was awarded $1.54 million grant from the National Institutes of Health on Monday, which makes ASU’s other recent newsworthy event—in the form of a scalding opinion from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals—all the more embarrassing. In Weatherly, et al. v. Alabama State University, released last week, the circuit court upheld a hostile work environment and retaliation verdict for over $1 million against the university. You know that a case will be bad when it opens with a statement that it “should greatly concern every taxpaying citizen of the State of Alabama, especially because it involves a public institution largely funded with tax dollars.” Three ASU female employees alleged that they were racially abused and sexually harassed while working for two ASU administrators: Dr. John Knight, Jr., Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, and LaVonette Bartley, an associate executive director. The plaintiffs—two of whom are black and one is biracial—were repeatedly called racial slurs by Bartley. Bartley once called one of the women’s sons, a 7-year-old, a racial epithet in his presence. Bartley also routinely commented on the women’s bodies, touching them and pressing against them at their desks. When one of the women complained to Knight about Bartley’s conduct, Knight said that he “was not going to walk on eggshells around [his] office" and that no one was going to tell him “ how to run his office.” (Knight also allegedly made sexual and inappropriate comments to one of the plaintiffs.) Knight warned employees that if they contacted the EEOC, they would be terminated. He made good on that promise by terminating two of the plaintiffs shortly after they filed EEOC complaints. ASU appealed the trial verdict, raising three issues: that the district court abused its discretion by denying ASU’s motion to sever, that the district court erred in finding that the women were entitled to front pay; and that the district court should have granted ASU’s (untimely) motion for judgment as a matter of law timely, or in the alternative, its 60(b) motion. The Eleventh Circuit disposed of these appellate claims on procedural grounds. (Quite frankly, given that ASU did not timely raise its claims below, it probably should not have bothered to appeal at all. Experts estimate that after attorneys’ fees, court costs and interest are added to the plaintiffs’ recovery, ASU’s bill could be more than $3 million.) The circuit court closed its opinion with a blistering indictment:
We are left to speculate who is in charge at ASU. Regardless, however, we are unnerved by the apparent acquiescence to, if not outright condoning of, the abusive work environment created by its high-level employees. Such conduct simply has no place in a work environment, especially at a publicly funded university.Read the opinion in Weatherly, et al. v. Alabama State University here.