Rutgers’ “Independent” Investigation

RutgersOne wonders how an “independent” investigation could support a finding that Rutgers bullying basketball coach Mike Rice should remain on the university payroll?

Rice was forced to resign recently after a videotape was leaked to the public and showed him verbally and physically  abusing players, while using homophobic slurs.

 In his letter of resignation letter to Rutger’s President Robert L. Barchi, Athletic Director Tim Pernetti writes:

 “As you know, my first instincts when I saw the videotape of Coach Rice’s behavior was to fire him immediately. However, Rutgers decided to follow a process involving university lawyers, human resources professionals and outside counsel. Following review of the independent investigative report, the consensus was that university policy would not justify dismissal.”

Corporate Counsel  reports that the outside counsel, Attorney John Lacey, an attorney with Connell Foley of Roseland, NJ,  issued a report in January stating that Rice could not be fired “for cause.” because there was no clear violation of his employment contract.

  Lacey found that Rice was extremely demanding of his assistant coaches and players but that his behavior did not constitute “a ‘hostile work environment’ as that term is understood under Rutgers’ anti-discrimination policies.”  Lacy said  the “intensity” of Rice’s misconduct may have breached provisions in his contract against embarrassing the school but, as Rutgers officials conveniently point out, did not recommend termination. 

The conclusion of the so-called independent investigation once again raises questions about these so-called  independent investigations.

 Increasingly,  employers hire  outside parties to “investigate” claims of workplace abuse.  There  often is  an unstated expectation that the result  of the investigation will affirm the employer’s goal of retaining the valued bully while insulating the employer from a potential lawsuit if the less valued target files a lawsuit. Too often the so-called independent investigators are attorneys who place themselves in the position of appearing to be for sale to the highest bidder.

 The videotape is so shocking that it defies reason that any “independent” investigator could reasonably  conclude that Rice’s behavior did not justify dismissal. In fact, some of the basketball  players could have filed criminal assault complaints against Rice for physically manhandling them. Instead of dismissing Rice, Rutgers fined him $50,000 and suspended him for three games in December.

 Just as in the Penn State scandal involving  pedophile football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, Rutgers appears to have tolerated Rice’s bad behavior.

After the videotape was leaked, the dominos began to fall. Rice was fired.  Assistant Coach Jeremy Martelli, Rutger’s General Counsel John Wolf, and Pernetti resigned.  If I were Barchi, I wouldn’t make plans to redecorate the Presidential suite.  Barchi’s  claim that he never took the time to watch the videotape.until it was made public was met with obvious disdain at a press conference. Barchi blamed his bad decision on a “failure of process.”

Here is what needs to happen so that employers will take workplace bullying seriously – managers  need to be held accountable.  

These student athletes are essentially workers who are paid in the form of scholarship assistance by the university.  Like any other worker, they know that  a complaint can result in retaliation and their termination.  These players  relied upon their unofficial employer, Rutgers, to insure they were treated with dignity and respect and certainly not subjected to emotional and p physical abuse.

 Most of the players just put up with Rice’s abuse. However, according to news reports, at least three players transferred from the program as a result of Rice’s abuse.

           

           

OK for Dentist to Fire Object of Desire

flossIn a small office, an employee often has no where to go  when she is mistreated by an employer.

The perils of this predicament are amply demonstrated in a recent ruling by the Supreme Court of Iowa.

The all-male Court  ruled that a dentist did not violate sex discrimination laws when he fired his long-time dental assistant because he (and his wife) was afraid he would have an affair with her.

The  Court upheld a lower court’s grant of summary judgment  in the case of Nelson v. Knight, No. 11–1857 (Dec. 21, 2012). This means the Court concluded  there was absolutely no way a jury could decide against Dentist James H. Knight and hold in favor of his assistant, Melissa Nelson.  Therefore, the case was dismissed before  trial.

Knight said he fired  Nelson, who had worked for him for ten years,  after his wife insisted that Nelson had to go. He gave Nelson one month’s severance.

 Knight admits that on several occasions he asked Nelson to put on a lab coat because her clothing was too tight, revealing and “distracting.”  Nelson denied that her clothing was tight or in any way inappropriate and said she complained to Knight at one point that his criticism was unfair.

 Nelson also recalls that  Knight once texted her to ask how often she experienced an orgasm. Nelson did not answer the text. The Court found it significant that  Nelson did  not remember ever telling  Knight not to text her or telling him that she was offended.

 When Knight’s wife found out that her husband and Nelson had been  texting each other, she confronted her husband and demanded that he terminate Nelson’s employment.  The Court finds it significant that Knight and his wife  consulted with the senior pastor of their church, who agreed with the decision.

After the firing, Knight told Nelson’s husband that nothing was going on but that he feared he would try to have an affair with her down the road if he did not fire her.

Nelson charged that Knight had discriminated against her on the basis of sex in violation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act. She contended that she would not have been fired if she were male. Nelson did not raise the issue of sexual harassment.

 The Court states in its decision that the question  to be decided was “whether an employee who has not engaged in flirtatious conduct may be lawfully terminated simply because the boss views the employee as an irresistible attraction.”   In this case, the Court held that  Knight’s decision was driven by individual feelings and emotions regarding a specific person. The Court concluded Knight’s decision was not gender-based or based on factors that might be a proxy for gender.

The Court states that an employer does not violate sex discrimination laws by ” treating an employee unfairly so long as the employer does not engage in discrimination based upon the employee’s protected status.”

 The Court did concede that it might be possible to infer that gender was an issue if an employer repeatedly took adverse employment actions against persons of a particular gender because of alleged personal relationship issues.

 So if  Knight repeatedly fires future assistants because he thinks he might want to have an affair with them, or if Knights’ wife demands that he fire future assistants because she thinks he might want to have an affair with them,  presumably a Court could find discrimination  on the basis of sex.

Meanwhile, Melissa Nelson is unemployed, with one month’s severance.

This may not come as a surprise to some readers but, according to the Court’s web site, there are no women justices on the Iowa Supreme Court. The seven justices are Chief Justice Mark S. Cady, David S. Wiggins, Daryl L. Hecht, Brent R. Appel, Thomas D. Waterman, Edward Mansfield and Bruce Zager.  Justice Mansfield wrote the opinion.

I Will Ruin … Who?

NOTE:  State College of Florida President Lars Hafner subsequently  resigned on Oct. 30, 2012 with a $363,000 settlement agreement.  The board  voted 7-0 in January 2013 to hire a new president,   Dr. Carol Probstfeld,  formerly vice president for business and administrative services at the college.  Carlos Beruff, a realtor, remains on the board.  Sigh.

Go quietly or I will ruin you

That alleged threat is at the heart of what promises to be a costly battle between two titans at State College of Florida (SCF) in Manatee-Sarasota.

The Bradenton Herald reports that the college’s board of trustees voted  5-2 this week to ask Florida’s Attorney General to investigate an allegation of forgery against SCF President Lars Hafner.

Hafner says the vote stems from a campaign of bullying by SCF board chairperson Carlos Beruff.  He recounted a private conversation with Beruff about nine months ago in which Beruff allegedly told Hafner, “If you don’t go quietly, I’m going to ruin you and ruin your reputation.”

Beruff has accused Hafner of forging former board president Steve Harner’s name on a 2010 state grant application for SCF’s Collegiate School charter school. Hafner contends he signed Harner’s to the document with Harner’s permission.

Hafner accused Beruff of risking the college’s reputation for the sake of what Hafner called Beruff’s personal and political agenda against him.

“This has been nine months of, basically, a witch hunt, and of you bullying me,” Hafner said to Beruff. “You’ve been doing it in private so other board members were not aware of what you’re saying or doing.”

At a special board meeting called by Beruff , Beruff presented an affidavit from attorney Greg Porges, whom Beruff had hired privately to research the forgery question, in which Porges said Harner did not authorize Hafner to sign the grant application in his stead.

Hafner presented an affidavit directly from former president Harner, in which Harner stated he believed that in up to four instances he had authorized Hafner to sign his name on Harner’s behalf and with Harner’s “direction and instruction.”

Meanwhile, board member Jennifer Saslaw, one of two board members to vote against taking the case to the attorney general, said Harner told her that Hafner’s signature on the application was made with Harner’s approval.

Joe Miller, the other board member to vote against involving the attorney general, questioned whether Beruff was attacking Hafner at the behest of Gov. Rick Scott, whose has proposed eliminating tenure for university employees and cutting the pay of university and college presidents.

Judge Ed Nicholas, a member of the SCF Foundation, accused the SCF board of “destroying the morale of this school” and driving away donors.  “Ever since you’ve been chairman, you’ve done nothing but attack this college or attack the staff,” Miller said. “I’m not sure who’s running things, the governor or this board.”

Hafner also said he was exploring whether Beruff violated state statutes by sharing information about Hafner’s evaluation.

One can’t help but wonder whether at any point the above officials considered other options to settle their difference? Say, mediation?  Counseling about the proper role of the administration versus the board? A duel?

Great Policy; No Follow-Through

The best policy in the world won’t protect you without follow-through.

That’s the lesson of a decision by the Seventh Circuit  Court of Appeals  in a Wisconsin sexual harassment case, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Management Hospitality of Racine, Inc., et al., No. 10-3247 (Jan. 9, 2012,).

The defendant, a company owned by Salauddin Janmohammed  which operates 21 International House of Pancakes restaurants, had a “zero-tolerance”  anti-harassment policy in place, anti-harassment training, and a policy of investigations of complaints.

What it didn’t have was follow-through. Or, in the words of the Court, “the policy and complaint mechanism were not reasonably effective in practice.”

According to the Court:  “the presence of a sexual harassment policy is encouraged by Title VII [but] the mere creation of a sexual harassment policy will not shield a company from its responsibility to actively prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.”

The Court upheld an award of $105,000 to two teenage servers at an IHOP operated by the defendant in Racine.  Katrina Shisler and Michelle Powell said they were sexually harassed in 2004 and 2005 by an IHOP assistant manager in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et seq.

Normally, an employer can advance the so-called Faragher/Ellerth affirmative defense in a Title VII case sexual harassment claim involving a hostile work environment. This allows the employer to escape liability for damages if:

 (a) it “exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any sexually harassing behavior,” and

 (b) “the plaintiff employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of any protective or corrective opportunities provided by the employer or to avoid harm otherwise.”

The Court said the  Faragher/Ellerth affirmative defense was not available to the Management Hospitality because both teens had complained to managers about sexual harassment  and the managers did nothing.  The company did not begin investigating until a private investigator hired by an attorney for one of the teenager began asking questions.

The Court said a rational jury could have found that the sexual harassment occurred “every shift,”  was “highly offensive,” and included “physical touching.”

The Court said a rational jury also could conclude that the employer failed to follow its own policies by discouraging  employees from reporting complaints, providing inadequate anti-harassment training to supervisors, and failing to “promptly” investigate the complaints.

The EEOC filed suit on behalf of the two teenaged servers. A jury awarded one of the servers $1,000 in compensatory damages and the other $4,000 in compensatory damages and $100,000 in punitive damages.

%d bloggers like this: