Second Lawsuit Accuses Emory of Gender Discrimination

Another Emory employee is suing the University and Ozzie Harris, the former senior vice provost for community and diversity at Emory, alleging that Harris engaged in gender discrimination toward multiple female employees.

Jackie Reese, an Emory administrative assistant who has worked at Emory since 2004, filed the lawsuit, obtained by the Wheel through her attorney at the U.S. District Court in the Northern District of Georgia on July 14, 2014.

This is the second known lawsuit filed against the University for alleged gender discrimination concerning Harris, who is no longer employed at Emory. The first lawsuit, filed in 2013 by a former Emory employee named Melissa Sexton, claimed that Harris engaged in gender discrimination when he fired her in May 2012.

The University settled the 2013 lawsuit filed by Sexton in January 2014. In October 2013, the Wheel reported that Harris was no longer employed by Emory University, though the University has declined to comment on whether his departure was related to the lawsuit.

For the 2014 lawsuit filed by Reese, Emory Interim Vice President for Communications and Marketing Nancy Seideman wrote in a statement to the Wheel: “Emory University filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, and we have every reason to believe that the court will do so.”

Harris directed comment toward his attorney, Peter Golden, who wrote in a statement: “Mr. Harris is aware of the lawsuit. He intends to vigorously contest the allegations and he looks forward to setting the record straight.”

This 2014 lawsuit filed by Reese, who works in the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs (EOP) which Harris oversaw as senior vice provost for community and diversity, reiterates many of the same claims as the 2013 lawsuit filed by Sexton. One of the complaints about the promotion of Alex Christian, a less qualified male employee, to a position in which Sexton had communicated interest, and another includes an allegation that Sexton was fired due to objections to Harris’ comments about women waiting to report rape or sexual harassment, according to an Aug. 29, 2013 Wheel article.

Reese’s lawsuit also claims that, after Sexton filed an internal complaint with Emory following her termination, Harris began “verbally abusing” Senior Secretary Mika Pettigrew, who worked under Harris, and that Pettigrew was “shaking and crying in fear” of Harris.

According to the lawsuit, Pettigrew quit her position at Emory after saying she could no longer endure the abuse, filing a complaint with the University citing “mistreatment on the basis of sex.” Pettigrew, who is currently listed as an administrative assistant in the Emory Center for Ethics according to Emory’s staff directory, declined to comment.

The lawsuit further claims that Harris verbally abused Reese after Pettigrew’s resignation and that after the University interviewed Reese during an investigation of Pettigrew’s complaint, Harris “demanded” Reese come to his office, kept her there for several hours, “berate[d]” Reese and made “disjointed and bizarre” statements. After Reese left the meeting, according to the lawsuit, she was extremely upset and began to have anxiety attacks on her way to work since that occasion.

The lawsuit charges Emory University with gender discrimination and retaliatory harassment, both under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, as well as a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

When contacted by email, Reese declined to comment personally and instead referred inquiries to her lawyer, Matthew Billips, who also represented Sexton in 2013 and gained notoriety in the same year for representing an employee suing celebrity chef Paula Deen.

“My feeling about this is, why did it take [Emory] so long to … take some action to prevent this from happening?” Billips said. “It boggles the mind that you would have someone in a position for enforcing non-discrimination laws engaging in the sort of conduct alleged in the complaints of Ms. Sexton and Ms. Reese. I think now that Mr. Harris is gone that … it’s much more possible for Emory to attempt to resolve the matter.”

Emory has not stated whether Harris’ departure was related to the lawsuit, and the University has also declined to comment on whether his employment was self-terminated or terminated by the University, according to Seideman.

As a specific incident, the lawsuit cites a conversation where another EOP administrative assistant discussed allegedly sexually harassing behavior from a custodian. Harris said, “sometimes men just go a little crazy when they see a beautiful woman” and advised against making an complaint.

According to the lawsuit, Reese left her position in July 2013 but resumed work at Emory in October 2013 after she was informed of Harris’ departure from the University.

During the summer, Reese went on leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) due to “an anxiety disorder and panic attacks caused by the work environment,” according to the lawsuit. She has since returned from FMLA leave, according to Billips, and is currently listed as an EOP program coordinator in the Emory staff directory.​

— By Sonam Vashi

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