June 01, 2015 Practice Points

NCCU Chancellor Accused of Discrimination

By Aaron VanNostrand

Three former employees of North Carolina Central University, a historically black university, have filed separate lawsuits accusing Chancellor Debra Saunders-White, who is African American, of discrimination against non-African Americans and improper spending of taxpayer money. Kimberly Luse, a former chief of staff to Saunders-White, has sued in Durham County Superior Court, while Marianne Murphy and Frank Smith, former employees of the university's business school, have filed separate federal lawsuits. Smith and Luse are Caucasian, while Murphy is of Cuban descent.

Courts have utilized a four-part test that employees must meet to establish a prima facie case of discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Generally speaking, if an employee can present evidence that the employee is in a protected class, was qualified for the position, was rejected for the position, and that an employee outside of the protected class was selected for the position, then the employer must present evidence that its decision was based on reasons that were not discriminatory.

In one of the lawsuits, Luse alleges that the chancellor had a "personal animus" toward her after she reported that the chancellor spent state money on personal expenses. According to Luse, Saunders-White berated her in front of colleagues, accused her of having sex with NCCU employees and visitors, and fabricated documentation that Luse was not performing her job properly. Furthermore, the chancellor allegedly advised Luse that she could never perform her job effectively because, as a Caucasian female, she could never understand the environment at a historically black college like NCCU.

Meanwhile, Smith and Murphy both allege that former business school dean Keith Pigues and current Interim Dean Juanita Lester have also engaged in racial discrimination against non-African Americans. Smith lost his job in a restructuring of the business school, but according to his lawsuit, NCCU then hired an African American professor to take his place. Murphy left her tenured position at NCCU after claiming that she was a highly qualified candidate for a promotion, but was overlooked. She further alleged that her pay was much lower than that of less-qualified African-American professors. Both Murphy and Smith are seeking back pay and other damages.

NCCU has said that it plans to respond to the allegations in court. In its statement, the school explained that it consistently fosters diversity and inclusion within its faculty and "maintains nondiscriminatory policies, practices and procedures that ensure the fair, transparent and equitable resolution of employment-related grievances." Additionally, in an email to the school, Saunders-White called the allegations of racism at the school "malicious" and said the school will defend itself against the lawsuits.

Keywords: minority trial lawyer, litigation, racial discrimination, North Carolina Central University, chancellor, Debra Saunders-White

Aaron VanNostrand is with Goldberg Segalla in Buffalo, New York.

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