Lawsuit alleges SFA leadership ignored reports of racist behavior, used employee labor for personal gain

Published: Sep. 6, 2022 at 12:57 PM CDT
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NACOGDOCHES, Texas (KTRE) - A lawsuit against Stephen F. Austin University by a former employee claims a supervisor made racist comments about employees and that the former president’s wife had her doing chores, running errands and painting her nails.

The civil suit filed on Tuesday in federal court alleges that SFA leadership at multiple levels ignored reports of racist behavior and that the employee was retaliated against for filing reports regarding all of the above.

According to the filing, after Scott Gordon was hired as president in 2019, the former employee was demoted from her position as house coordinator for the SFA President’s House and assigned to custodial/janitorial duties in the university’s physical plant. It was during her first stint at the physical plant that she says her supervisor there began making racist remarks about other physical plant employees, who were predominantly Hispanic and African American. The plaintiff alleges, among other things, that the custodial supervisor’s comments metaphorically referred to these employees as slave laborers by calling them “field hands” or “house hands.” The plaintiff alleges he likened himself to an overseer sitting on a horse with a big straw hat and a whip, overseeing the “hands,” referred to himself as “the field boss” and made reference to the 1977 television miniseries ”Roots” when speaking about other employees.

The plaintiff alleges that no action was taken by the university’s human resources department after a complaint was filed in September 2019. It was around this time that the plaintiff also reported having difficulty performing custodial duties due to multiple physical disabilities.

In November 2019 the plaintiff was reinstated to her position as house coordinator at the President’s House where she resumed her previous duties. However, the suit alleges that Gordon (who resigned as president in April 2022) had the employee do personal shopping for himself and his wife, cook Gordon’s breakfast, do laundry, make beds and even perform manicures for Gordon’s wife. Allegations include being forced to travel to six different stores merely to find the SnackWell’s Devil’s Food Cookie Cakes that Gordon preferred. The plaintiff says these sorts of requests often made her uncomfortable and were never made by Gordon’s predecessor.

The suit says that it was during the plaintiff’s time with the Gordons that she alerted them to the physical plant supervisor’s racist comments. The plaintiff also says she alerted her supervisors to the Gordons’ alleged misuse of her labor. In June 2020, the suit alleges Mrs. Gordon herself requested the plaintiff be removed from her position in the President’s House. The plaintiff was subsequently sent back to the physical plant.

During her second stint at the physical plant, the plaintiff alleges she was harassed by her supervisors due to physical disabilities that made it difficult to perform her assigned custodial duties such as being solely responsible for cleaning three large buildings. The plaintiff says formal complaints with human resources were filed specifically regarding her alleged disability discrimination and harassment, the aforementioned racist comments, as well as the alleged impropriety by the Gordons.

In response, the suit says the university hired law firm Littler Mendelson, P.C. to investigate the plaintiff’s claims. However, the suit alleges that this firm was hired specifically for its history of acting favorably on behalf of employers who have discrimination suits filed against them. “Having Littler investigate (plaintiff’s) claims is like having a Sam Houston graduate referee the Battle of the Piney Woods,” the petition states.

The investigation was conducted between October 2020 and January 2021, at which time it concluded that the plaintiff’s claims were “unsubstantiated,” save for the claims of racist comments by the physical plant supervisor. “Nevertheless, the evidence pertaining to [the supervisor’s] racist comments and behavior was so profound and pervasive, that even the Littler attorneys were force to acknowledge it occurred,” the suit states.

Within immediate proximity to her filing the complaint in October 2020, the plaintiff states her supervisors began retaliating against her with threats of altered work hours, poor evaluations and verbal abuse. The plaintiff states she was terminated shortly after the Littler Mendelson report was concluded.

In April 2020, SFA and President Gordon “mutually agreed to part ways.” SFA paid President Gordon over $800,000 in severance.

The plaintiff is seeking “actual damages due to her under the law, including but not limited to back pay, front pay, and compensation for past, present and future lost benefits; compensatory damages; damages for mental anguish; reasonable and necessary attorney’s fees; and court costs. The plaintiff is also asking the court to require SFA to revise its employment policies and require training of its leadership regarding Title VII and the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

A representative with SFA said the university does not comment on pending litigation.