The former vice president for human resources at Coastal Alabama Community College has filed a federal lawsuit against the school, claiming her termination last year violated her constitutional rights, along with the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993.
As Lagniappe previously reported, plaintiff Laura Burks was one of a number of administrators shown the door after the former Faulkner State Community College consolidated with Jefferson State Community College and Alabama Southern Community College to form CACC in January 2017.
Burks was terminated in 2019 after a peer review team concluded she fraudulently altered a document and failed to perform her duties, a decision the complaint notes was upheld by a “hand-picked,” state-appointed officer after a personnel hearing late last year. Burks, through her attorney Tom Loper, argued the evidence and witnesses proved she was innocent of the alleged fraud, while extenuating circumstances, exacerbated by her broadening role during the consolidation, contributed to any perceived inability to perform her job. That decision is on appeal.
Burks recalls many of the same defenses from her personnel hearing in the federal complaint, including how she was provided “little assistance and no full-time staff” after essentially becoming the head of three personnel departments in one after the consolidation. Further, there was the emotional impact of losing her teenage daughter to suicide in November 2017. She was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
But the complaint does not rehash Burks’ allegation she was retaliated against for participating in an internal investigation into fraud and misconduct at one of the other schools that were consolidated. Several other administrators involved with or with knowledge of that investigation have since been dismissed, but personnel hearing officer Keith Brown, the president of Jefferson State Community College, determined “there was no credible evidence” to support claims of political or personal retaliation.
In affirming the peer review group’s recommendation to terminate Burks, Brown also wrote the evidence “supports my finding that the conduct of Mrs. Burks constitutes neglect of duty, employee misconduct and failure to perform duties in a satisfactory manner.”
Burks’ federal complaint alleges CACC discriminated against her under federal statutes by denying “accommodations for her disability, and [she] was terminated because of alleged performance issues related to her disability.”
Additionally, it claims Burks’ constitutional protections were violated by “subjecting her to intentional and unlawful discriminatory and/or retaliatory practices based upon her disability and/or her advocacy for herself, specifically through the termination of plaintiff and the college’s refusal to reinstate her … Discriminatory acts against [Burks] were willful, intentional, deliberate, malicious and in bad faith. Defendant’s discriminating acts were carried out by final policy and decision makers or based upon retaliation by final decision and policy makers.”
Filed Feb. 6, the school has not yet responded.
Meanwhile, another former administrator at CACC was handed a favorable decision from an administrative law judge at the Alabama Attorney General’s (AG) office.
Dr. Brenda Kennedy, CACC’s former executive vice president of institutional advancement and student development, claimed she was denied a personnel hearing after her position was eliminated last year. In October, she filed an appeal with the AG’s office alleging the failure of due process.
CACC argued since Kennedy was reclassified as a vice president in 2017 from her previous title as dean, it may have “impacted her status previously attained as non-probationary classified employee,” possibly eliminating the requirement for a termination hearing.
But on Feb. 14, a judge determined “a transfer of positions within the same system does not result in a loss of tenure already earned” and, “because Ms. Kennedy had obtained and retained non-probationary status at CACC, she is entitled to a hearing before termination.”
Loper explained the distinction between the two cases.
“While Laura’s case was pending, they decided to eliminate all vice president positions including hers,” he said. “So when that happened, they basically said [Kennedy] was terminated and was not being given a hearing, which was confusing because [Burks] had already been given a hearing on the previous termination case, and then they turn around and say Kennedy doesn’t get one.”
Loper said he has not received a response to his request to put Kennedy back on administrative leave pending a hearing.
“They had no grounds to terminate her other than they wanted to eliminate the position. They thought that because a vice president does not have the right to a hearing that they can just get rid of her, but she had tenure in previous positions,” he said.
Both Burks and Kennedy worked under longtime Faulkner State Community College President Gary Branch. Upon his resignation, Chancellor Jimmy Baker tapped Patty Hughston as interim president, but later reassigned her to his office and temporarily appointed Kemba Chambers as a permanent replacement was sought. Last August, Baker tapped Dr. Craig Pouncey to assume the presidency; his term became effective in October.
In Burks’ personnel hearing, CACC attorney Wendy Bitzer of Hand Arendall also argued her defense of a political motive was a “sideshow” to distract from “dishonest and purposely deceitful” behavior.
While Burks’ complaint drops the political argument, Loper still believes it.
“That’s the reason they were trying to get rid of all of the folks who worked under Dr. Branch; the chancellor is trying to put in people that are loyal to him,” he said.
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