School of Nursing Dean Connie Delaney’s former executive assistant has taken steps to initiate a federal lawsuit against the University of Minnesota, claiming she was discriminated against and wrongfully terminated.
The legal team representing Erica Goetzman, the former assistant, filed the complaint, alleging the University violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Minnesota Human Rights Act and the Minnesota whistleblower law.
On Friday, the University’s Office of the General Counsel will file an answer to the complaint, outlining the University’s defense, General Counsel Mark Rotenberg said.
Although many students expressed support for Delaney and the School of Nursing’s national ranking has improved under her leadership, controversy has surrounded the dean over the past year.
The Star Tribune published multiple investigations into Delaney’s activities in March and April, reporting she used favoritism in hiring and violated University policies.
In March 2012, Provost Karen Hanson sent a letter formally reprimanding Delaney for violating the University’s policy on outside consulting for Delaney’s 2007 hire of a clinical professor who was also working full time for Mercy Hospital in Iowa for 17 months without formally reporting outside employment to the University. She also revoked Delaney’s hiring privileges for employees exceeding 30 hours per week until June of next year.
“Although you were early in your tenure as a dean, you should have known the requirements of the University’s Policy on Outside Consulting,” Hanson said in the letter.
Goetzman worked for Delaney from October 2007 until June 2010. According to the complaint, she received the highest possible performance ratings during this time.
The University could not release these ratings because they are considered private personnel data under Minnesota law.
Adrianna Shannon, one of Goetzman’s attorneys, said the parties have tried to solve things informally through mediation talks since the end of her employment, but they could not come to an agreement.
“We are ending up in federal court because we really have exhausted every other opportunity to try to get things resolved,” she said.
Rotenberg said he was not aware of these informal mediations.
In early 2012, Goetzman’s attorneys filed a charge with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In February 2012, the agencies ruled that Goetzman had “probable cause” to file the discrimination report because Delaney failed to accommodate her disability and fired her as retaliation for her report.
Rotenberg said the University has concluded that Goetzman’s claims “lacked merit.”
“As this case proceeds,” he said, “the University will have the opportunity to provide significant evidence showing that no unlawful action was taken against this former employee.”
Goetzman suffers from migraines, coughing and burning eyes around certain chemicals due to her disability of multiple chemical sensitivity.
She alleged in the complaint that Delaney repeatedly refused to accommodate this disability by wearing a perfume that Goetzman was allergic to and not allowing her to place a sign on her desk declaring it a “chemical-free environment.”
The MDHR found this failure to accommodate, along with the way she was released from her job showed “probable cause” to go to federal court.
But Rotenberg said despite her claims, Goetzman’s disability was not why her job ended.
“The functions of her job and the classification of her job was simply shifted for cost-cutting reasons and has nothing to do with any disability that she may have,” he said.
Because the MDHR and EEOC found probable cause, Goetzman’s suit was legitimized. Rotenberg said that probable cause does not mean the University is at fault.
The complaint also accuses Delaney of misusing University funds.
In one instance mentioned in the complaint, Goetzman’s attorneys call out Delaney’s 2010 trip to Hawaii.
Delaney’s expense report shows she spent $1,559.36 on the trip, which Goetzman alleges was a personal vacation.
The School of Nursing and the Center for Spirituality and Healing defend Delaney, claiming this trip was to visit a hospital the center counsels in Hawaii.
“She met with a variety of U of M faculty and health care leaders, focusing mainly on informatics and sharing information around changes occurring nationally that would impact health care systems,” the school said in a statement.
They also said Delaney traveled to visit potential donors as a “fundraising effort” for the school.
In the complaint, Goetzman said there were dinners and drinks that were not “legitimate business expenses.”
Shannon said she believed Goetzman’s job was terminated because Goetzman reported Delaney’s alleged misuse of funds as well as her discrimination claims.
“Ms. Goetzman was willing to put her own job security at risk to protect the public’s best interests,” she said.
The receipts show Delaney spent $137.66 on town cars for transport to and from the airport, $1,155.08 on roundtrip airfare and $266.62 on dinners — which adds up to the amount listed on the expense report for the nine-day trip.
‘What justice would require’
In the complaint, Goetzman asks for an excess of $75,000, which could mean much more.
But Shannon said the case is not just about the money — she and her client would like to see more checks and balances in the system.
“After the parties have had some more discovery in this case, we’ll have a much better understanding of what justice would require,” Shannon said.
Rotenberg did not mention any misuse of funds. He said the University’s main defense for the case will show Goetzman was not discriminated against.
“The University believes that the Goetzman complaint lacks merit,” he said. “And we will be defending that case in court.”