Lawsuit alleges UF denied ex-director a new position because he's white


Published: Friday, June 14, 2013 at 12:37 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, June 14, 2013 at 12:37 p.m.

A longtime University of Florida professor and former director of an academic program for students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds is alleging in a lawsuit that he was denied promotion to a new director position because he is white.

When he complained about it to the provost and other top administrators, he further alleges that he was retaliated against.

In the lawsuit filed in the 8th Circuit Court in Alachua County, Dana Peterson contends that a less-qualified person was picked as the new director of the Office of Academic Support on the basis of her race and that when he objected, he was demoted and had his contract terminated.

The lawsuit was filed May 20, almost a year after the Florida Commission on Human Relations made a finding of reasonable cause that he had been discriminated against and retaliated against for reporting the discrimination.

An administrative hearing had begun, but he withdrew his complaint in November in order to file a civil suit in circuit court, after learning he had a better chance of winning and getting a larger settlement in that venue.

"Employees have a much better chance in state court, especially with a jury, than with the FCHR," said Donna Ballman, a labor and employment law attorney in Fort Lauderdale.

In his lawsuit and in other public records related to his case, Peterson claims that the top administration at UF fostered a climate of discriminatory recruiting and hiring in which race was considered over merit in an effort to increase diversity, resulting in a more-qualified candidate not being chosen for a director's position because he was the wrong color.

"Since I had hoped that this matter would remain in-house, I sincerely regret that the university hasn't been the least bit proactive in holding its higher administration accountable for its actions regarding my circumstance," Peterson said. "I can assure that the past two and a half years have been among the most difficult of my life."

Peterson has asked the court to award him an undisclosed amount of money to make up for the salary and benefits he would have received as director, and also to require the university to enact policies that eliminate discrimination and provide equal employment opportunities.

Prior calculations by his attorneys put the amount of unearned pay at around $450,000.

UF Provost Joe Glover, who is mentioned in the suit, said he hadn't been notified or served and that when he talked to UF's general counsel, that office knew nothing about it, either.

"I have not been made aware of any summons or lawsuit or complaint, so I have no comment," Glover said. Even if he had known, he said, it was "not appropriate for me to comment on personnel matters."

Merging the office of AIM

Peterson, who has a doctorate in English literature from UF, began working at his alma mater in 1987. Ten years later, Glover, whom Peterson said he considers a mentor, appointed him director of the newly created AIM program — a "race-neutral program to help first-year students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds."

According to its website, "the mission of the AIM Program is to assist first-year, high-risk students by offering a variety of services that try to lay the foundation for academic success."

More than 300 incoming freshmen enter UF through AIM each year. The students are accepted into UF even though their college entrance scores might be below minimum standards in some categories, said Peterson, who served on the admissions committee for more than a decade.

In March 2010, Bernard Mair, the associate provost for undergraduate affairs, told Peterson he was merging AIM with the Office of Academic Support and hiring a new director. Mair also told Peterson his position was being eliminated but that he could apply for the directorship.

Mair appointed a multiethnic search committee and told Peterson that if he didn't get the job, he could apply for the assistant director position.

Peterson said Mair told him he would have to "consider the feelings of the Black Alumni Association in the selection" of a new director. Peterson said one committee member told him he'd be perfect for the job if he were black.

Peterson was one of five candidates interviewed and the only non-minority in the group of finalists. Mair hired a black woman, Angeleah Browdy, even though she did not have any prior administration experience — one of the qualifications for the job stated in writing by Mair. Browdy had been a faculty adviser for the student group Minorities in Agriculture, National Resources and Related Sciences.

Peterson met all the qualifications, including 13 years as director of the program he'd be overseeing.

"Race was not a consideration in the decision," said Janine Sikes, assistant vice president for media relations at UF.

Peterson said he expressed his concerns to both Glover and Mair, who told him, "Well I'm not saying you didn't get 80 percent of the support." Peterson said he agreed to help with the merger transition but turned down what he deemed to be a demotion by filling the position of associate director of OAS.

Retaliation?

Being offered a lesser position was the first of what Peterson said he deemed to be a series of employment-related retaliations for expressing his objections to the search process and selection.

Peterson said he received a 3 percent merit increase when the merit pool was 4 percent for faculty. It was the first time, he said, they he'd had received a raise that was below the average for the merit pool. He said he wasn't given a chance to discuss the merit increase prior to its submission to the payroll department, a violation of the faculty contract. Nor did he receive an evaluation prior to the lower-than-average raise, Peterson, said, also a violation of the faculty contract.

When it was pointed out to him, Mair gave Peterson his first negative evaluation during his 20-plus years at UF, Peterson said. On Nov. 1, 2010, Peterson said he was told his employment contract would not be renewed, effective Nov. 2, 2011, but he has continued to work at the university in a series of jobs he said are "below his academic credentials and experience."

In August 2011, Glover blocked a 12-month contract offered to Peterson by the College of Fine Arts, Peterson said.

Peterson remains employed by UF because the faculty contract requires faculty whose contracts are not renewed to receive two additional years of employment.

After failing to get any positive response from Glover and Mair, Peterson said he went to the Human Resources Department in October 2011 to complain about the perceived discriminatory practices related to the elimination of his position, the non-renewal of his contract and denial of promotion.

He said HR Employee Relations Director Kim Czaplewski told him she would remedy the discrimination and "make the situation right" but instead, Peterson said Czaplewski deterred him from filing a complaint with the Commission on Human Relations.

Czaplewski denied in an affidavit taken Nov. 2, 2012 that she told Peterson she would make things right or that she deterred him from filing a discrimination charge with the commission.

She said the matter would be investigated. She said she took his complaint and handed the matter over to David Lopez, UF's former director of Equity and Diversity, to investigate.

Frustrated by what he perceived as UF's lack of responsiveness and lack of accountability, Peterson obtained legal representation and filed a complaint with the commission on Jan. 4, 2012 — three months after he was due to be terminated.

Peterson's attorneys also sent a letter to Jamie Keith, general counsel for UF, on Jan. 26, 2012, outlining Peterson's case and asking for a settlement of $180,000 as part of the commission's mediation process.

Unlawful practice

After investigating Peterson's claims, the Commission on Human Relations determined that "reasonable cause exists to believe that an unlawful practice occurred," Michelle Wilson, executive director of the commission, said in a letter dated June 29, 2012.

Ruben Betancourt, an investigative specialist with the Office of Employment Investigations, said in his findings that Peterson's 13 years of running a program designed to prepare students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds for success at UF made him "uniquely qualified to have been selected for the position." Betancourt found that Angeleah Browdy "had not held an administrative position nor had experience in program development, qualifications in the job description drafted by Dr. Mair himself."

Betancourt also said there was "evidence to support the allegations of retaliation against" Peterson. "Complainant has been reassigned to three positions below his academic credentials and prior work experience, which he considers demotions, the current one being in the university's library cataloguing a rare book collection."

In his final recommendation, Betancourt said the recorded evidence showed Peterson was discriminated against based on his race and "retaliated against for bringing his concerns about the hiring process to the Respondent's Human Resources Department, among others, as well as filing a complaint of discrimination, both protected activities."

On July 9, 2012, Peterson's attorneys notified UF that they had filed a petition for relief and raised the settlement offer request to $450,000 on the basis he would have earned $90,000 a year for five years.

UF's attorneys responded to Peterson's petition with a motion for summary judgment, arguing that he missed the deadline for filing his complaint, and that the Commission on Human Relations had erred in its ruling that he met the filing deadline. The university's response did not address the substance of his claims.

In an affidavit filed with the Commission on Human Relations on Oct. 15, 2012, Mair said he had announced the merger of AIM with OAS and that Peterson could apply for the new position of director of OAS.

On July 8, 2010, Mair said he told Peterson he did not get the job but would continue as associate director of OAS. Mair said that prior to not being selected for the director's job, Peterson was "confrontational and uncooperative in the performance of his job duties and this behavior continued and escalated after he was not selected for the new Director position."

As a result of his behavior and "failure to abide by my directives," Mair said he had no choice but to notify Peterson that his contract wouldn't be renewed.

The university has 20 days to respond to the suit from the time it was served a summons on May 29. Once UF responds to the lawsuit, the case can move forward to a hearing at the request of the plaintiff. Eighth Circuit Administrative Judge Toby Monaco has been assigned to the case.

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