Former Emporia State employees win, lose separate racial discrimination lawsuits

A federal judge ruled this week that the administration at Emporia State University retaliated against an African American woman whose contract was terminated after she reported racial discrimination.

The same day, a jury handed up a verdict against her husband in a separate discrimination and retaliation suit against the university.

Angelica Hale and her husband Melvin Hale worked at Emporia State University in the School of Library and Information Management during the 2014-2015 school year. The couple told The Star last month the university opted not to renew the couple’s employment after they pushed for an investigation into a racial slur written in a notebook.

Both Melvin and Angelica Hale filed lawsuits, which had been pending in the U.S. District Court of Kansas since 2016.

In Melvin Hale’s case, a jury handed up a verdict Monday, dismissing his lawsuit filed against five university administrators. The trial had started last week.

Melvin Hale was an assistant professor at the university and said the administrators retaliated against him for speaking out against discrimination by “placing him in a ‘cooling off period’” that “banished him from his workplace and colleagues,” the lawsuit said.

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Daniel Crabtree issued an order ruling in favor of Angelica Hale’s retaliation claim because the judge found Hale had “engaged in a protected activity” when she met with administrators to complain about the racial slur.

Gwen Larson, spokesperson for Emporia State, said the university is studying the decision in Angelica Hale’s case with counsel but is pleased with the outcome in Melvin Hale’s case.

“Emporia State is committed to and is continually focused on creating an inclusive and welcoming environment for all,” Larson said in a statement.

According to court records, on April 8, 2015, a graduate assistant found the N-word written in a notebook and reported it to Angelica Hale.

Angelica Hale took a photo of the slur and sent it to her husband, who in turn reported it to the school’s dean, Gwen Alexander. The couple then took their complaints to Provost David Cordle after they said they felt the dean didn’t address their concerns adequately. They also filed a hate crime complaint with the Emporia State University police department, which concluded that no crime had been committed.

Angelica Hale, who worked in a temporary position as a recruitment coordinator in the office, later learned from the dean that her temporary appointment would end Aug. 15.

Jackie Vietti, the interim university president at the time, asked human resources to investigate allegations of racial discrimination in the School of Library and Information Management.

While the university’s report claimed it found no evidence of discrimination, Ray Lauber, the associate director of human resources, concluded that Hale’s meeting with the provost “did play a part in Dr. Alexander’s decision not to reappoint [Ms. Hale] to the temporary position” or post a permanent position Hale had anticipated applying for.

The report noted that although the dean said the decision not to renew Hale’s temporary job was made before she met with the provost, the dean “did not communicate the change in direction of recruiting for the position to [Ms. Hale]” until after the meeting. It also said that documented “performance issues” about Hale came after her meeting with administration.

District Judge Crabtree concluded in his decision that Hale “presented evidence sufficient to establish that she engaged in a protected activity when she reported the racial slur to Dean Alexander and Provost Cordle.”

The judge also wrote, “The ESU Report supports a conclusion that Ms. Hale subjectively believed she was opposing racial discrimination. Specifically, the report indicates that Ms. Hale believed the slur constituted a hate crime directed at her. The court thus concludes that Ms. Hale engaged in protected opposition to discrimination when she complained about the slur to Dean Alexander and Provost Cordle.”

The court awarded Hale nominal damages of $1 and said she may recover her costs. The court is also allowing Hale to submit a briefing within 30 days addressing whether front pay or reinstatement, and back pay are appropriate. Emporia State may file a response within 30 days of Hale’s filing.

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Kaitlyn Schwers covers breaking news and crime at night for The Kansas City Star. Originally from Willard, Mo., she spent nearly three years reporting in Arkansas and Illinois before returning to Missouri and joining The Star in 2017.