Lawsuit Accuses University of Gender Discrimination

A former Emory employee is suing the University, alleging that an administrator engaged in gender discrimination when firing her in May 2012.

Melissa Sexton, a former community research post-doctoral fellow who worked at Emory for more than a decade, filed the lawsuit at the U.S. District Court in the Northern District of Georgia through her attorney on June 3.

The lawsuit, obtained by the Wheel, claims that Senior Vice Provost for Community and Diversity Ozzie Harris displayed “discriminatory conduct” during verbal altercations with Sexton that led to the termination of her employment.

Specifically, the document alleges that Sexton was fired for objecting to the promotion of a much less qualified male candidate to a position in which she had expressed interest, and for disagreeing with comments Harris made about women not immediately reporting sexual harassment or rape.

The lawsuit charges the University with two counts of gender discrimination: one under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and another under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. It also says Sexton suffered from mental and emotional distress, as well as lost wages and employment benefits.

Nancy Seideman, Emory’s interim vice president for communications and marketing, wrote in a statement to the Wheel that “Emory takes all allegations of employee misconduct seriously” but said the University declines to comment on the pending lawsuit. Harris also declined to personally comment, referring an inquiry to Emory communications.

When reached by email, Sexton referred all inquiries to her attorney Matthew Billips, an Atlanta-based employment lawyer. Billips, who has recently gained attention for representing a woman suing celebrity chef Paula Deen, did not respond to multiple emails and phone messages seeking comment.

Sexton held multiple positions at Emory and helped lead the Transforming Community Project, an initiative that studies race history at Emory and aims to promote dialogue. She worked on the project through a fellowship from University President James W. Wagner’s office and the Ford Foundation, an organization that aims to reduce injustice and strengthen democracy worldwide.

She began her tenure at Emory in 2000 as a research assistant, according to her LinkedIn page.

Harris fired Sexton in late May 2012 nearly two weeks after she objected to “discriminatory” comments Harris made during a staff meeting, according to the lawsuit. He allegedly said that if a woman does not immediately file a complaint about rape or sexual harassment through the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs (EOP), then the situation must not be very important to her.

He became “agitated,” the lawsuit claims, when Sexton responded that a woman might not complain for several different reasons — a statement that the document describes as a “substantial or motivating factor” in the decision to ultimately fire her.

The lawsuit further claims that other employees had told Sexton in the past that Harris discriminated toward women.

Later that month, the two became involved in a verbal altercation over the promotion of Alex Christian, the former program coordinator of the Office of Community and Diversity, to the EOP assistant director position, the lawsuit says.

Harris was aware that Sexton was interested in a promotion, according to the lawsuit, but the opening was neither advertised nor announced, and she was not given an opportunity to apply.

Sexton was much more qualified for the position, according to the lawsuit. In addition to her fellowship from Wagner’s office, Sexton has a Bachelor’s Degree in Religion from Furman University (S.C.), a Master of Divinity degree from Emory University and a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, also from Emory.

Meanwhile, Christian was working toward his Bachelor’s Degree, which he “was allowed to do online during the work day,” according to the lawsuit.

Sexton learned of Christian’s promotion as he was working with employees to measure space for his new and larger office, which would have cut into Sexton’s work space, according to the lawsuit.

During a staff meeting that day, Sexton asked Harris if she should work from home, “in light of the fact that her cubicle had been shrunk even further,” the lawsuit states. Harris became “extremely angry,” accusing Sexton of “using my emotions to hold people hostage” and terminated her on the spot, the document says.

Sexton is currently a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Decatur. She specializes in individual, couples and family counseling, according to her website.

— By Jordan Friedman