Inside Higher Ed: Setting an Example

By Scott Jaschik for Inside Higher Ed

July 23, 2012

The odds might have seemed to be stacked against Jacqueline Gill when she sued Tarrant County College for losing her job teaching English.

Gill did not have tenure and the legal protections that it brings. And she was suing the college for what she saw as discrimination based on sexual orientation, making her a lesbian suing a college that (at the time of her complaint) did not bar bias based on sexual orientation, and she did so in a state (Texas) that does not prohibit such discrimination.

The college initially claimed that she had lost her job for legitimate performance-related reasons. But in March, a federal judge refused to dismiss the case, finding there was enough evidence to warrant a trial. And this week, after mediation, the college agreed to pay Gill $160,000 (£102,500, equivalent to roughly three years’ pay at the salary she was earning at the college) and to write her a positive letter of recommendation. And although the college did not include sexual orientation as protected from bias by the institution at the time of the conduct Gill alleged in her suit, it has since added such a policy (independent of the suit).

Gill was hired to a full-time, non-permanent position in 2009 and was told that the college typically changed such positions to permanent after a successful first year. She thought that her first year had been successful, based in part on favourable evaluations from students and colleagues. But one former student – whom Gill noted she had disciplined for stealing an exam in a course – had complained that Gill had been flirting with female students (something Gill denies).

The college never brought any charges against Gill, but subsequent to the suit being filed, she had a discussion that she interpreted as the English chair suggesting that gay people did not enjoy good careers at the college. (The college has denied that he said anything of the sort.) Then Gill was the only member of her hiring cohort who was not invited to interview for a full-time position. She then sued in federal court, charging that she was being denied equal protection under the law.

Kenneth Upton, a lawyer for Lambda Legal, a gay rights group that represented Gill, said he saw the settlement as significant because it demonstrated that a gay or lesbian employee of a public institution does not have to accept bias based on sexual orientation. Although private employers in states without legal protections for gay people are indeed immune to such suits, “public employers have to play by a different set of rules”, he said.

Upton added that “we want people to know that they have this right”.

He said that he was less certain if this was a precedent that would help adjunct staff. Part of the case was built on Tarrant’s record of shifting people to permanent status after one year, he said. So while Gill was off the tenure track when she was teaching at the college, she had more expectation of continued employment than would be the case for someone hired for a first year at many other colleges, where there is no system of regularly promoting people to permanent status.

The settlement stipulates that the institution and its employees are not admitting guilt in the case. A statement released by the college said that “although a financial settlement emerged as the least costly resolution to this matter, the district continues to deny the allegations/claims by Ms. Gill.”

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