Updated 4:48 p.m. Friday, with reaction from Harris-Stowe: For the second time in recent weeks, former employees at Harris-Stowe University have won seven-figure discrimination verdicts against the school.
In the latest case, a St. Louis Circuit Court jury this week ordered the payment of $750,000 in actual damages and $1.75 million in punitive damages to Shereen AbdelKader, an Egyptian native whose contract as an assistant professor of education was not renewed in 2010.
That verdict follows one last month in favor of Beverly Wilkins, who was awarded $1.35 million in lost wages and emotional distress and $3.5 million in punitive damages. Wilkins had argued that she had lost her job in 2010 as an education professor in the historically black university because she is white.
The money awarded to the two plaintiffs does not come directly from the university but from a state legal expense fund, according to the attorney general’s office.
Late Friday, the university released this statement:
"While the jury concluded that there was discrimination based on national origin, Harris-Stowe State University vehemently denies that there was any discrimination of any sort. Harris-Stowe firmly believes the non-renew of employment was justified because the former employee’s work visa was not approved by the U.S. Department of Immigration, and the institution intends to appeal that verdict.
"Harris-Stowe is committed to creating a non-discriminatory work environment consistent with its long-standing non-discrimination policy."
In the case of AbdelKader, the all-white jury found in favor of Harris-Stowe on a claim of racial discrimination. But it awarded damages on claims of discrimination on the basis of national origin plus a claim of retaliation.
Eric Playter, a Kansas City lawyer who argued the case on her behalf, said she had been told in the fall of 2009 that students had complained about her performance. AbdelKader asked for documentation of the claim, he said. She felt she was being targeted.
He said she sought a meeting with university officials and asked to bring an attorney. But, he said, she was told if an attorney got involved, it could complicate her effort to obtain a visa she was seeking.
The university was supposed to be sponsoring AbdelKader’s application for a visa, Playter said, but she was later told that all of the paperwork related to the case had been lost or destroyed.
“She felt like she couldn’t trust the university after being threatened with her visa and then being told all of her visa paperwork had been lost or destroyed,” Playter said.
At trial, a university official denied saying that the presence of an attorney would complicate AbdelKader’s visa application.
She eventually got the visa independent of help from the university, Playter said, but her contract was not renewed at the end of the 2009-2010 school year.
After she left Harris-Stowe, Playter said, AbdelKader taught briefly at two other universities but ran into more visa complications and is currently seeking work. She lives in Pennsylvania and did not want to be interviewed, asking Playter to handle all inquiries from reporters.
In the case of both AbdelKader and Wilkins, a key figure is LaTisha Smith, who at the time that both women lost their jobs was dean of the Harris-Stowe college of education. She has since left that position.
Playter said that Smith was the one who told AbdelKader that students had complained about her performance but did not provide documentation to back up that claim.
When AbdelKader sought to have an attorney with her in the meeting with university officials, Smith sent an email to Harris-Stowe officials that suggested AbdelKader should not have her contract renewed because she does not support the progress of the university, Playter said.
Smith was also a key figure in the case of Wilkins. Her attorney, Michael Meyers, said Wilkins lost her job while two other faculty members who were African-American but had less seniority were retained. Wilkins said she was losing her job because of budget cuts at Harris-Stowe.
An email written by Smith and introduced at the trial said she was interested in prioritizing an increase in the presence of African-American faculty members in the college of education and she used the phrase “black power,” Meyers said.
After the verdict in the Wilkins trial, Harris-Stowe would not comment except for this statement attributed to Ronald Norwood, head of its Board of Regents:
“While the verdict is regrettable and is being evaluated regarding a possible appeal, the case is related to events that transpired in 2010. As a result of the recent changes in leadership and personnel, Harris-Stowe State University is now moving forward in writing a new and very exciting chapter in the history of this great University.”
At the time of the actions featured in the Wilkins and AbdelKader trials, the university was led by its longtime president Henry Givens. He left that position in 2011 after serving for 32 years. The school’s current president, Dwaun Warmack, took office last year.