Diverse Docket: New Jersey University Lawful in Terminating Former Black General Counsel

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by Eric Freedman

Vivian Sanks King

Vivian Sanks King, former general counsel of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey

After being faced with the threat of a federal indictment in a Medicaid fraud investigation seven and a half years ago, the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey terminated the African-American woman who was its general counsel, as well as three other employees—all women.

Now, a state appeals court says the university had a ‘legitimate, non-discriminatory reason” to discharge Vivian Sanks King and upheld dismissal of her race, gender and age bias suit.

As the university’s chief legal officer, Sanks King’s duties included oversight for compliance at a time when UMDNJ allegedly engaged in systematic double-billing for medical services, the court said.

According to the court, in 2001 Sanks King learned that University Hospital had likely engaged in illegal Medicaid reimbursement practices but didn’t notify the state Medicaid program until 2004.

A federal criminal probe began in 2005. It spurred the then-U.S. attorney for New Jersey—now-Gov. Chris Christie—to demand the firing of Sanks King, another staff attorney and two compliance officers.

Christie told the university that his office would defer prosecution of the institution only if the four were discharged. Three of the four who lost their jobs were Black.

Though she was not criminally charged, not questioned by the U.S. Attorney’s office, nor had to testify before a grand jury, Sanks King sued under the state civil rights law, alleging employment discrimination, denial of due process, wrongful denial of a severance package and damage to her reputation. She alleged that UMDNJ didn’t force the termination of three White men also involved in the billing scandal: the former president, a chief financial officer and the medical school dean.

A lower-court judge threw out the case without trial.

In affirming that decision, the Appellate Division of Superior Court found no evidence of an improper discriminatory motive for the termination. It said Sanks King had admitted, “I don’t have any facts” to back her claim that the president terminated her due to race, gender or age “or that anyone at UMDNJ wanted her terminated for any reason other than that the Office of the U.S. Attorney demanded her termination.”

Sanks King had also conceded, “I don’t know what the U.S. Attorney’s motives were” in seeking her termination and she acknowledged “that a criminal prosecution would have financially devastated UMDNJ and forced it to close,” the court said.

The panel also found no grounds to blame reputational damage on the university and emphasized that Sanks King didn’t dispute the factual accuracy of newspaper reports about the probe. According to the court, it was the investigation itself, not statements by university representatives, that was primarily responsible for harming her reputation.

Lawyers for Sanks King and the university did not respond to requests for comment.

Race Discrimination Claim Against Strayer Dismissed

A federal judge in Maryland has dismissed race discrimination and retaliation claims made by a former associate campus dean at Strayer University.

In 2006, Strayer hired Starsha Sewell, who is African-American, as a quality assurance specialist, according to the decision. She was paid extra as an adjunct faculty member and was promoted to associate campus dean in 2007, shortly before she filed an internal race discrimination complaint against her supervisor, alleging a hostile work environment.

Sewell later accused the supervisor of gender, race and color discrimination for a “financial demotion” by discontinuing her additional pay for teaching. Strayer terminated her in August 2008.

In dismissing the case, U.S. District Judge Deborah Chasanow ruled that Sewell had failed to exhaust her administrative remedies through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regarding alleged intentional race, gender and color under Title VII. She also found many other claims to be time-barred or unsupported by facts.

The decision gave Sewell, who represents herself in the case, 21 days to refile any remaining allegations. Strayer’s lawyer did not return requests for comment.

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