Lawsuit Accuses University of Gender Discrimination

A former Emory employee is suing the University, alleging that an administrator engaged in gender discrimination when firing her in May 2012.

Melissa Sexton, a former community research post-doctoral fellow who worked at Emory for more than a decade, filed the lawsuit at the U.S. District Court in the Northern District of Georgia through her attorney on June 3.

The lawsuit, obtained by the Wheel, claims that Senior Vice Provost for Community and Diversity Ozzie Harris displayed “discriminatory conduct” during verbal altercations with Sexton that led to the termination of her employment.

Specifically, the document alleges that Sexton was fired for objecting to the promotion of a much less qualified male candidate to a position in which she had expressed interest, and for disagreeing with comments Harris made about women not immediately reporting sexual harassment or rape.

The lawsuit charges the University with two counts of gender discrimination: one under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and another under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. It also says Sexton suffered from mental and emotional distress, as well as lost wages and employment benefits.

Nancy Seideman, Emory’s interim vice president for communications and marketing, wrote in a statement to the Wheel that “Emory takes all allegations of employee misconduct seriously” but said the University declines to comment on the pending lawsuit. Harris also declined to personally comment, referring an inquiry to Emory communications.

When reached by email, Sexton referred all inquiries to her attorney Matthew Billips, an Atlanta-based employment lawyer. Billips, who has recently gained attention for representing a woman suing celebrity chef Paula Deen, did not respond to multiple emails and phone messages seeking comment.

Sexton held multiple positions at Emory and helped lead the Transforming Community Project, an initiative that studies race history at Emory and aims to promote dialogue. She worked on the project through a fellowship from University President James W. Wagner’s office and the Ford Foundation, an organization that aims to reduce injustice and strengthen democracy worldwide.

She began her tenure at Emory in 2000 as a research assistant, according to her LinkedIn page.

Harris fired Sexton in late May 2012 nearly two weeks after she objected to “discriminatory” comments Harris made during a staff meeting, according to the lawsuit. He allegedly said that if a woman does not immediately file a complaint about rape or sexual harassment through the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs (EOP), then the situation must not be very important to her.

He became “agitated,” the lawsuit claims, when Sexton responded that a woman might not complain for several different reasons — a statement that the document describes as a “substantial or motivating factor” in the decision to ultimately fire her.

The lawsuit further claims that other employees had told Sexton in the past that Harris discriminated toward women.

Later that month, the two became involved in a verbal altercation over the promotion of Alex Christian, the former program coordinator of the Office of Community and Diversity, to the EOP assistant director position, the lawsuit says.

Harris was aware that Sexton was interested in a promotion, according to the lawsuit, but the opening was neither advertised nor announced, and she was not given an opportunity to apply.

Sexton was much more qualified for the position, according to the lawsuit. In addition to her fellowship from Wagner’s office, Sexton has a Bachelor’s Degree in Religion from Furman University (S.C.), a Master of Divinity degree from Emory University and a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, also from Emory.

Meanwhile, Christian was working toward his Bachelor’s Degree, which he “was allowed to do online during the work day,” according to the lawsuit.

Sexton learned of Christian’s promotion as he was working with employees to measure space for his new and larger office, which would have cut into Sexton’s work space, according to the lawsuit.

During a staff meeting that day, Sexton asked Harris if she should work from home, “in light of the fact that her cubicle had been shrunk even further,” the lawsuit states. Harris became “extremely angry,” accusing Sexton of “using my emotions to hold people hostage” and terminated her on the spot, the document says.

Sexton is currently a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Decatur. She specializes in individual, couples and family counseling, according to her website.

— By Jordan Friedman

  • DFJones

    I understand completely. The same thing occured in another department in May of 2013 to an employee who worked for Emory for 25 year. How do I know because it was me.

  • Chris

    The attorney for the Paula Deen case really? Sound like she wants a settlement to me! If it’s a real allegation that’s one thing, but sounds fishy to me.

  • Liz

    I know him and the situation, this is heterosexist and homophobic. That’s all I have to say.

    • ME

      Who are you saying is wrong? I know OH to be a bully and not reasonable and helped wreck someone’s career.

  • Dooley’s Screaming Conscience

    So, um, two of the top five stories in the Wheel right now are about the university getting sued for discrimination. Is anyone else getting the sense that maybe the school with a President who celebrated the perpetuation of slavery as “noble” and “honorable” may have some problems with its institutional culture? Or that maybe – just maybe – that both of these cases (which involve secret decisions by administration figures) point to a serious need for transparency?

    • Crafty

      Wagner never celebrated slavery as noble and/or honorable.

      • Dooley’s Screaming Conscience

        You’re not reading my comment very well, bro. He explicitly celebrated its perpetuation through political chicanery as a “noble” and “honorable” course of action.

        “What we needed to talk about is restoring compromise to the status of a tool to advance a noble agenda,” Wagner said. “We’ve gotten into a bad place to imagine that
        the compromiser is the loser of a conversation or an argument.”

        • Dooley’s Screaming Conscience

          Or: “compromise not understood as defeat, but as a tool for more noble achievement” Or: “The constitutional compromise about slavery, for instance, facilitated the achievement of what both sides of the debate really aspired to—a new nation.”

          If those aren’t celebrations of the perpetuation of slavery through a cracked ends-justify-the-means argument, than I don’t know what is. And it’s not much of a coherent argument, anyways – since I kind of remember one side of that noble compromise being so much more interested in keeping its slaves rather than “forging a new nation” that when push came to shove they actually started a Civil War to keep them enslaved, nation bedamned. But then again maybe I lack the leadership vision, moral imagination, and historical acumen of our dear President.

          • Crafty

            I’m going to go with “you don’t know what is.”

            He could have chosen a better compromise — one that would provoke less of an emotional response. That shows poor judgment and perhaps a lack of sensitivity. not a celebration of slavery.

            He never celebrated slavery, neither through “poltiical chicanery” or other means.

          • Dooley’s Screaming Conscience

            Of course you’re right. Wagner simple wrote that passing the Compromise and thereby perpetuating and enshrining slavery in the American state was noble and honorable because it reflected “higher aspirations” of preserving
            the union (for a bit, I guess, but who’s counting?). That’s HARDLY a problematic thing to say – people were just too “sensitive.”

            Perhaps he should have just chosen a less “sensitive” example – say, the Western powers selling out the Czechs and Poles to Hitler for the sake of preserving European unity (for just a bit). Clearly that’s an equally noble and honorable act of compromise. Why are we so compelled to paint the compromisers as losers in that argument, too? Hell, things were great in Europe for another year or so for the Neville Chamberlain et al.

            Note how this analogy, like Wagner’s, utterly ignores the suffering of the people who were Compromised over – slaves (in his example), Jews and Slavs in mine – and solely takes the perspective of the politicians who cut deals over their bodies.

            So, yeah, sure, “perhaps” he’s just a little insensitive. More likely, though, he’s a craven fool lacking in even basic historical consciousness and moral imagination besides. Which makes me wonder why you are so compelled to defend him?

  • Equal rights

    Erik Butler was also fired for discriminatory reasons. What the hell is going on?

  • http://gravatar.com/uptopgrl uptopgrl

    I was also terminated for discrimnatory reasons. If you dont agree or respectfully question anything that seems odd you are considered a non-team player. To have employees working under hostile conditions with threats of termination is considered the norm something is wrong.
    Its time to revamp administration!

  • Not a Good Example

    I don’t doubt that there are victims of gender/race discrimination on Emory’s campus, but this case should not be the example. I know the plaintiff, and she is extremely difficult to get along with, constantly viewing herself as a victim and a martyr. I would NEVER promote her for any position. I am not trying to assassinate her character; this just makes me sad for employees who have been passed over for reasons other than serious emotional instability, terrible boundaries, and a complete inability to work on a team.

  • Dooley’s dead

    Wonder why tuition goes up? Better get the checkbook out…this will quietly get settled out of court and this lady will be set.

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  • Emory Student

    I have worked with Provost Harris for two years. He is very friendly, kind, and responsible individual. Although I do not know the plantiff, but I would ask Emory community to treat this case seriously. I believe discrimination will not be the only summarization for the incident. I personally would trust Ozzie for his moral value and diligence in work.

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