‘Justice Is Served’: Jury Returns More than $1M Sexual Harassment Verdict Against Alabama State University

Scott Johnson, Montgomery Adviser, February 18, 2012

A federal jury returned a verdict totaling more than $1 million Friday evening against Alabama State University.

The jury found that the school had allowed an administrator to create a hostile work environment by racially and sexually harassing three female employees and that the women were retaliated against after they filed complaints.

“Justice is served,” said Cynthia Williams as she walked out of the courthouse about 6 p.m. Friday, alongside the two other plaintiffs, Jacqueline Weatherly and Lydia Burkhalter, who echoed the sentiment.

The jury of four men and four women returned a verdict that includes compensation for emotional pain and mental anguish; back pay for Williams and Burkhalter, who were fired; and lost leave time for Weatherly.

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The jury found that Lavonette Bartley, an ASU employee for about 27 years, created a racially hostile environment for all three women. She was accused of regularly using the N-word, calling one of the plaintiffs a “white bitch” and a number of other specific allegations. The jury also ruled in favor of Burkhalter’s claim of sexual harassment.

The plaintiffs, and Bartley, are black women with the exception of Burkhalter, who is described in court documents as biracial.

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Bartley is the associate executive director in the office of Executive ASU Vice President and Chief Operating Officer John Knight. She works in Knight’s office in Suite 119 of Council Hall on the ASU campus, where all three plaintiffs also have worked.

The lawsuit also accused Knight of making romantic advances toward Burkhalter, although the verdict itself did not make it clear whether the jury’s decision on sexual harassment included one or the other of those claims or both.

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The trial lasted eight days and included testimony from some well-known elected officials, including Knight, a longtime state legislator.

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Knight’s testimony included denials of claims against him and that he had never heard Bartley use the N-word or other derogatory terms while on the ASU campus.

The jury of four men and four women awarded Weatherly $350,000; Burkhalter $230,000; and Williams $213,500 for emotional pain and mental anguish.

Jurors also awarded Williams $141,573.76 and Burkhalter $94,592.51 in back pay and Weatherly $9,453.06 in lost leave time.

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