Lawyers littered the pews of the Division 8 courtroom on Oct. 13, each waiting patiently to meet with the judge. Among the hearings, meetings and motions scheduled that day, a settlement conference between Webster University and David Garafola, former vice president of finance and administration for the university, was to begin at 1 p.m. Attorneys for both parties, however, never arrived to the Division 8 courtroom.
The conference was meant to resolve Garafola’s employment discrimination lawsuit against the university. Among his allegations, Garafola claims Webster failed to take the neccessary steps to report financial fraud perpetrated by Michelle Owens to the U.S. Department of Education. Owens, a South Carolina prison inmate at the time, stole hundreds of thousands of dollars in financial aid when she enrolled as 23 inmates to Webster’s online learning program.
Susan Kerth, interim director of public relations, said Webster University was unable to comment on the Garafola’s suit because it remains in active litigation.
The absence of attorneys at the settlement conference diminished the chance of a settlement, Ann Franke, a lawyer specializing in higher education, said. Attorneys for Webster and Garafola declined to comment for this story.
On July 11, 2011, Garafola’s counsel submitted a newly amended petition to supplement the original petition filed in January. The amended petition offers more depth into Garafola’s accusations against Webster and lays claim to age discrimination by the university.
The amended petition alleges Garafola’s termination was indicative of a pattern of age discrimination at Webster. The lawsuit also alleges a number of older, upper-level administrators were forced to retire under conditions that, “clearly indicated discriminatory practices against employees over the age of 50.”
Garafola has obtained a right to sue letter from the Missouri Human Rights Commission in regards to his case. He was 54 at the time of his termination.
Among the individuals Garafola submitted as evidence of this claim are former President Richard Meyers, current Chancellor Neil George, former Vice President of Enrollment Management Deborah Dey, former Vice President of Academic Affairs Jim Staley and former Vice President of Information Technology Lawrence Haffner.
The lawsuit alleges these administrators were either forced to resign, retire or take “less prestigious” positions based upon their age. Among the claims made in the suit, Garafola alleges George’s interest in filling the president’s position after Meyer’s departure was superseded by an issue with George’s age, 63 at that time. It was then that Elizabeth Stroble was chosen for the president position.
Garafola claims the chancellor position was created for George and when he accepted the position, he rescinded nearly all administrative responsibilities.
Garafola also claims the retirement of Jim Staley is evidence of age discrimination. Garafola claims upon arriving to Webster, Stroble announced the retirement of Staley from the position of vice president of academic affairs. This announcement was made, Garafola claims, despite the fact Staley had never voiced any intention to retire. The lawsuit claims Staley filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint against the university alleging age discrimination.
Beyond forced retirements, the amended petition claims Haffner, 59 at the time, was forced to resign from his position as vice president of information technology and accepted “a less prestigious role writing policy.” He is now employed by Webster as a chief policy analyst in the Office of the Provost.
In its response to the amended petition, Webster denies nearly all of the claims made by Garafola. In regards to George’s interest in the presidency, Webster claims that George only voiced his interest after participating as a member of the search committee. The school also claims it cannot attest to Staley’s EEOC complaint, which is confidential under law.
Brittany Ruess contributed to this report.