Online University Faces Trial on Employee's Discrimination Claim Based on Polish National Origin
Jones International University (“JIU”) is headed for trial on claims by its former employee, Ivonna Edkins, that it discriminated against her based on her Polish origin and gender. Two weeks ago, a federal district judge in Colorado denied JIU’s motion for summary judgment on Edkins’s claims, finding evidence that JIU’s former general counsel was a “domineering male who was disrespectful and dismissive of women with executive responsibilities.” Edkins v. Jones Int’l Univ., Ltd., No. 11–cv–01790–RPM (D. Colo. 2012).
In his order, Judge Richard Matsch described the power struggle that led to the dispute.
Edkins, who moved to the United States from Poland in 1987, began her relationship with JIU in 2007. In May 2008, JIU’s owner, Glenn Jones, promoted her to Vice Chancellor of Admissions. Soon after, Edkins clashed with Bruce Cunningham, who had ingratiated himself with Jones. Cunningham, according to the court’s order, held meetings with the admissions team without including Edkins. He also called her “Polska” and suggested that if she married her boyfriend in the vodka business, whom he called her “Vodka man,” she would not have to work.
The issues between the two came to a head in March 2009, when Cunningham hired a director of admissions to work under Edkins. When Edkins tried to train the new director, he told her he didn’t need training. Displeased, Edkins reported him to Cunningham, but her report had an unexpected effect: Cunningham used her e-mail to persuade Jones to fire her.
Applying the McDonnell-Douglas test for discrimination claims (which we have explained here and here), the court found “sufficient evidence to support a prima facie case of discriminatory treatment because of a blending of the protected groups of national origin, Polish, and gender, female.” Further, there was ample evidence that the reason given for Edkins’s termination – poor performance – was not the real reason, given the evidence of Cunningham’s “arrogant, disrespectful, dismissive and domineering” treatment of JIU’s employees, Jones’s “impulsive, ill-advised and unfair” decision to fire Edkins after she complained about insubordination, and Cunningham’s “perception that a woman from Poland was not qualified for the position Ms. Edkins occupied.”
Of course, the court’s order does not resolve whether Edkins will prevail on her claims – just whether she had enough evidence to put them to a jury. But given the court’s harsh words for Cunningham and Jones, JIU’s lawyers may have trouble persuading a jury that their client didn’t act badly.