White woman wins racial discrimination suit

Jury orders university to pay $4.85 million

By Jessica Shumaker
The Daily Record Newswire

ST. LOUIS - A white former faculty member of a historically black university in St. Louis won a $4.8 million verdict in a suit against the university's board of regents.

Beverly Wilkins, the case's plaintiff, argued that her 2010 termination from Harris-Stowe State University was racially discriminatory and that the school's actions were retaliatory. Prior to her termination, Wilkins was a non-tenure track faculty member in the university's Teacher Education Department.

On Oct. 30, following a weeklong trial, the jury awarded Wilkins $3.5 million in punitive damages and $1.35 million in compensatory damages.

In 2012, Wilkins sued the university, the board of regents, and school officials including Henry Givens Jr., the university's then-president; Dwyane Smith, provost and former vice president of academic affairs; and Latisha Smith, the former dean of the College of Teacher Education.

All parties except for the board of regents were dismissed prior to trial, according to Wilkins' attorney, Michael S. Meyers of Meyers and Meyers, a Charlotte, North Carolina firm.

Meyers said both he and his client were pleased with the outcome. He noted the jury gave unanimous verdicts for both types of damages.

"That was very meaningful for my client," he said.

When Wilkins was terminated, she was told it was part of a reduction in force tied to cuts in state funding, but she could continue to teach her summer course, Meyers said. Wilkins emailed the officials listed in her initial petition and complained that her termination was discriminatory and violated the university's reduction-in-force policy.

Under the policy, layoffs of employees were to be based on seniority, Meyers said. Wilkins had seniority over several black employees who were not laid off, Meyers said.

Wilkins was removed from teaching her summer course about a week later over allegations of misconduct, Meyers said.

Wilkins was replaced by two black employees, at an added cost of over $20,000. She contended the university did not follow its policy regarding recall of employees terminated by reductions in force.

During discovery, Meyers said the court ordered the board of regents to preserve electronically stored information of key employees and to later produce hard drives and email servers for an independent computer forensics investigation. A year later, the university admitted to deleting Latisha Smith's email account and additional information after the court order.

The destruction of Smith's email account was noteworthy because an email from another professor in Wilkins' department sent to school officials alleged that Latisha Smith had engaged in unprofessional behaviors, "including making comments that she was 'all about Black Power,'" Meyers said.

The same professor allegedly told Wilkins that Smith she wanted to make the department "blacker," Meyers said.

"In deposition, no individuals or corporate representative could explain why the board did not follow its RIF policy, how Ms. Wilkins was selected for the alleged RIF, why she was fired for misconduct without substantiation or process, who hired the replacement professors, how the additional cost balanced the budget or who destroyed the documents," Meyers said. "Board members conceded they had failed in their oversight obligations with respect to Ms. Wilkins' termination."

The board argued Wilkins' termination was not racially discriminatory because nine of 12 employees who were laid off were black, Meyers said. They said a lack of documentation was consistent with its informal discussions and mostly oral decision-making processes.

Robert Isaacson and Colleen Vetter of the Missouri Attorney General's Office in St. Louis represented Harris-Stowe. The office declined to comment.

Published: Wed, Nov 25, 2015