April 26, 2010

Jury Exonerates ILR School in Age, Sex Discrimination Case

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A federal district court jury cleared the University on Friday of all charges filed by a former School of Industrial and Labor Relations senior extension associate who alleged age and sex discrimination after Cornell decided not to renew her contract. This is the latest development in the case that has meandered its way through federal court for the past seven years.

Margaret “Peggy” Leibowitz ’73, who taught classes at the ILR extension program in New York City, first filed a complaint in 2003, a year after she learned that ILR administrators had decided not to renew her contract. Though the case was previously dismissed by district judges twice without going to trial, the U.S. Court of the Appeals finally granted Leibowitz her day in court in November.

Friday’s unanimous jury decision came after a five-day trial in a New York City federal court. In a decision filed Monday, Judge George B. Daniels wrote, “It is Ordered and Adjudged, that the Plaintiff take nothing and that the action be dismissed on the merits.”

Nelson Roth, deputy University counsel, who defended Cornell, noted his satisfaction with the outcome. “It’s as clean a trial as I’ve ever seen,” he said. “It started Monday morning and ended late Friday afternoon.”

Roth also expressed disappointment that the five administrators and professors named in the lawsuit had to contend with Leibowitz’s allegations.

“The people involved in this case are committed to fair treatment in the workplace,” he said. “They made some difficult decisions, but having examined the factors on this matter, I never had any doubt [that the allegations were baseless].”

University Counsel James Mingle said in a University press statement that they knew from the outset that the “plaintiff’s allegations were without merit.”

Leibowitz’s counsel, from the New York City law firm Liddle & Robinson, could not be reached for comment Monday evening.

A Long Time Coming

Leibowitz’s first complaint, filed in December 2003, sought more than $1.9 million in compensation because of alleged sex and age discrimination in the University’s decision not to renew her contract. Leibowitz taught at both the Ithaca and New York City campuses, and because the University could not afford to reimburse her for traveling expenses, administrators decided not to keep her on staff.

The plaintiff was one of six female employees laid off between late 2001 and early 2003 for budgetary reasons. All were over the age of 50. Thomas Germano, a second plaintiff in Leibowitz’s case, who was a senior extension associate and director of the ILR extension program in Long Island, also alleged age discrimination in the decision to terminate his contract.

In two different hearings, federal judges dismissed Leibowitz’s case because she did not hold tenure. This meant that the University was under no obligation to keep her on staff, so there was no evidence of “adverse employment action” in the decision to lay her off, according to Sun archives.

On Oct. 23, Leibowitz won her right to a trial when a New York City Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that the “District Court erred in concluding that plaintiff did not meet her burden of establishing a prima facie case of age and gender discrimination.” They found that Leibowitz had the potential to make the case that discrimination played a role in the non-renewal of her contract.

The fact that five other women over the age of 50 were laid off, and the jobs of all six women were reassigned to three male colleagues, played a role in the Appeals Court decision.

University counsel asked that the case go in front of a judge rather than a jury, but the Appeals Court ruled that a 10-person jury must decide the case, according to Roth.

Though Cornell has been exonerated, Leibowitz still has the right to appeal the most recent decision.

“Maybe she can conjure up some issue,” Roth said. “If Leibowitz were to appeal, we would vigorously oppose. She has had her day in court, and the jury has spoken.”

Implications for Contract Non-Renewal

The Second Circuit Court’s decision to allow Leibowitz a trial set a precedent that a contract non-renewal can trigger a case of discrimination in the same way as a termination. Though universities have in the past assumed contract non-renewals cannot be called into question on claims of discrimination, this is no longer the case.

An article published by the law firm Fish & Phillips explained: “In the Leibowitz case, the Second Court cited decisions of the Third, Sixth, Seventh and Tenth Circuits, and several district court decisions, where those courts expressly concluded that non-renewal of an employment contract satisfies the adverse-action requirement. Some circuit courts, such as the Ninth circuit, have yet to consider this precise issue.”

This precedent may become especially applicable as universities across the country decline to renew instructors’ contracts in order to tighten budgets in light of the recession.

David Marek, Leibowitz’s attorney, told Inside Higher Ed last fall, “Colleges and other employers may find themselves needing to eliminate jobs when the economy’s bad, it’s true. But they also still sometimes try to get rid of people they want to get rid of anyway, and people need to be able to bring discrimination claims when they think that’s happened to them.”

Other ILR Cases

The ILR extension program in New York City is also facing another complaint against its labor practices. After Francine Moccio, a 58-year-old senior extension associate was laid off in 2008, she filed a complaint against Cornell for age and sex discrimination. She is also being represented by Marek of Liddle & Robinson.

Roth declined to comment about the Moccio case because of confidentiality policies regarding ongoing litigation.

Original Author: Ben Eisen