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Intimidation is Not a Strategy: University Overcomes Discrimination Claim But is Still Ordered to Pay $1M

Published by on April 8, 2016

Employers can find themselves in an awkward, high-risk position when their improper actions and strategic missteps in response to an employee’s claim or grievance overtake the original issue itself.

Employers need to be careful not to engage in conduct that could win the battle but lose the war when it comes to employment disputes. In the case of the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., this is exactly what took place.

In March 2016, a District of Columbia Superior Court jury awarded $1.01 million to a fired architecture professor at the school even though her claim that the school discriminated against her was rejected by the same jury.

The former professor, who was also an alumnus of the school, filed suit claiming that her dismissal from her position on supposedly disciplinary grounds was actually prompted by administrators’ discovery of her Muslim faith, as well discrimination against her Indian ethnicity and female gender.

School officials claimed, however, that the professor had been fired for insubordination and mismanagement of funds for an architecture project she had been charged with overseeing.

During the trial, plaintiff’s counsel presented a series of emails between the dean of the university’s School of Architecture and the fired professor, as well as between the dean and other university officials, discussing the option of using a threat of criminal prosecution as a means of discouraging the plaintiff from pursuing a lawsuit.

These communications were in response to the terminated professor’s initial complaint to school administrators questioning the basis of her termination, and led the jury to conclude that the school did not take the allegations of discrimination seriously.

In addition to the $1.01 million award, the court also ordered the dean who had authored the threatening emails to pay $15,000 to the plaintiff as well.

Welter Insight

There are four powerful points on human resource management and professional conduct that arise from this “Pyrrhic victory” outcome for the employer:

  • First, this verdict points out the clear risk of retaliation claims. The employer won the discrimination claim, but lost a $1.01 million verdict on the retaliation claim. This is not an unusual fact pattern.
  • Second, threatening people with criminal prosecution is a very bad idea and may be a violation of the rules of professional responsibility if done by an attorney. If an employee or former employee violated the law, or if crime was committed, the employer should report it to the appropriate law enforcement agency.
  • Third, employers have a duty to investigate complaints of discrimination. The jury here noted that they thought the employer did not take the complaint seriously.
  • And fourth, email evidence played a key role in this verdict. Employers should use discretion in sending emails, especially when the emails involve the strategy for addressing or responding to an employment conflict. Whatever you say about a matter in an email should be something you would be happy for others to read and share publicly, should the matter escalate.
Image Credit: ncindc (Flickr @ Creative Commons)
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