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Former professor files disability lawsuit against university

A former Syracuse University professor who claims she was “unlawfully terminated” because she took multiple leaves of absence due to disability and pregnancy is now suing the university.

Elizabeth Fowler was a tenure-track, associate professor in the College of Visual and Performing Arts’ Department of Foundation until last January, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court in November.

The two sides filed documents last week outlining a timeline for the case and indicating they would be open to discussing the possibility of settlement. If the case goes to trial, the trial would take place in May 2016.

In the lawsuit, Fowler says she has suffered from a compressed nerve since October 2011, which caused nerve pain and also exacerbated her previously diagnosed clinical depression, according to the lawsuit. These disabilities and two previous pregnancy leaves led to Fowler being harassed, treated unfairly, discriminated against and eventually “constructively fired” by SU, the lawsuit states.

Prior to her disability, Fowler always received positive performance reviews and merit raises, according to the lawsuit.

In its response to the complaint, SU denies Fowler received positive performance reviews and merit raises. The university also says Fowler was not discriminated against because of her disability or pregnancy leaves and that SU acted “in good faith.” Fowler was deemed a “voluntary quit” because she refused to do her job, according to the response. In December, SU asked that the lawsuit be dismissed.

Fowler is representing herself in the lawsuit. She declined to comment at this time.

Kevin Quinn, senior vice president for public affairs, said in an email that he can’t comment on pending lawsuits. The university has “very strong policies” on non-discrimination in employment on the basis of disability and maternity and parental leave, he added.

Possible violations of discrimination laws

Fowler’s lawsuit claims the university’s treatment of her violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, the New York Human Rights Act and a section of the Civil Rights Act that deals with pregnancy discrimination.

Last January, Fowler contacted the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency responsible for enforcing laws about workplace discrimination, concerning her treatment at SU, according to a letter sent to the commission and included in the lawsuit.

In reviewing Fowler’s complaint, the commission said it couldn’t establish that SU had violated federal law. This however, does not mean that SU is necessarily in compliance with the law, according to the letter.

In December, the university asked that Fowler’s lawsuit be dismissed because she does not have a qualified disability under the ADA and New York Human Rights Act, according to its response.

The university did not have an Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator prior to last semester. SU appointed an interim coordinator in November after THE General Body, a coalition of student organizations at SU, held a sit-in at Crouse-Hinds Halls and included the hiring of a permanent ADA coordinator in its document of demands and grievances.

A search for a permanent ADA coordinator is currently underway, Quinn said, and the university expects to hire someone “very, very soon.”

Leaves of absences

During her time at SU, Fowler asked for and received multiple leaves of absence due to her disability and her pregnancies. In the lawsuit, she claims this was held against her in evaluating her for tenure and continued employment.

Fowler underwent neck surgery in March 2012 for the compressed nerve but continued to experience complications, so she asked that the 2011-2012 school year not be counted against her when she was being evaluated for tenure. SU granted this request, according to the lawsuit.

Fowler had also previously asked that the 2008-2009 and 2010-2011 school years not be counted in her tenure evaluation because she was on parental leave, according to the lawsuit. During these leaves, Fowler taught one class less than normal for one semester. These leaves were often spoken of negatively by members of Fowler’s department and used as evidence that Fowler wasn’t dedicated to her job, the lawsuit states.

During this time, Fowler was never able to fully recover from her compressed nerve due to unsuccessful surgery and so asked for disability leave for the fall 2013 semester. This leave was granted and Fowler did not ask for this semester to be excluded from her tenure evaluation, according to the lawsuit. 

Disagreement over contracts

Fowler and the university disagree about the types of contracts Fowler had with SU and about the way Fowler ultimately left the university.

In April 2013, Fowler’s department recommended the dean not renew Fowler’s appointment. Fowler claims that her annual contract and tenure-track position were terminated at this time, according to the lawsuit, and that she was only placed back on the tenure-track after she obtained legal counsel. In its response, SU denies that her contract and tenure-track position were terminated, though it does admit being contacted by Fowler’s lawyer.

Following disability leave in Fall 2013, Fowler was cleared to return to SU for the spring 2014 semester. While Fowler’s lawyer was still negotiating a contract with SU, she was assigned to teach two classes, which had enrollments of four and five students, respectively, according to the lawsuit.

After she refused to attend the first day of classes because she did not have a contract, SU canceled the two classes and told students it was because of low enrollment, according to the lawsuit. In its response, SU said the classes were canceled because of Fowler’s refusal to teach them.

On Jan. 15, 2014, Fowler was told she would not be granted research leave for the semester. With no classes to teach and no research leave, SU had “constructively fired” the defendant, according to the lawsuit. That same day, SU told Fowler she was being “separated due to job abandonment,” according to the lawsuit.

In the Feb. 4 article,”Former professor files disability lawsuit against university,”the extend and duration of Fowler’s parental leaves was unclear. Fowler taught one less class than normal for one semester during both the 2008-2009 and the 2010-2011 school years. The Daily Orange regrets this error. 

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