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Latinos, CSUF Settle Lawsuit

In court-ordered mediation of a discrimination case, six plaintiffs and attorneys receive $200,000 from the university system.

May 22, 2003|Jeff Gottlieb | Times Staff Writer

The California State University system has paid six current or former employees at the Fullerton campus a total of $200,000 to settle a lawsuit alleging they were discriminated against because they are Latinos.

The agreement, finalized this week, settles the latest personnel litigation against the campus. The state has settled or lost three sexual harassment suits and a related case at Cal State Fullerton in the last three years at a cost of about $1.5 million.

The discrimination case was filed in March 2002 in Los Angeles County Superior Court. The only defendants named in the suit were the California State University trustees and Cal State Fullerton. The settlement was reached last month during court-ordered mediation, and the plaintiffs' attorneys received the checks Wednesday. Attorney Darren Harris said his firm will receive $50,000, with each plaintiff receiving $25,000.

The plaintiffs were two associate deans with doctoral degrees, three clerks and a graduate-student assistant. All worked in the student affairs division, which since 1997 has been overseen by Robert Palmer, vice president of student affairs.

The suit alleged the plaintiffs were demoted, unfairly disciplined, denied promotions, given poor evaluations, harassed and fired because they were Latino. The plaintiffs had worked at the campus for as long as 25 years.

Through a spokeswoman, Palmer declined to discuss the cases Wednesday. In the past he has denied any discrimination.

Paula Selleck, a campus spokeswoman, said that the university's position is that the allegations of discrimination were false, and that the suit was settled to avoid a protracted legal battle.

The case had been scheduled for trial this month.

Keith Walden, the plaintiffs' lead attorney, said that although the settlement was not huge, it is much more than a trivial sum to make a nuisance suit disappear. "If they were willing to pay $200,000, they must have thought there was some danger there," he said.

One plaintiff, student assistant Sam Rodriguez, said the settlement wasn't enough "for what they practiced -- institutional racism."

"But it further documents [that] there are problems, and it's up to the [state college] system to have integrity to do something about it. Paying people off isn't a remedy."

The lawsuit offered a variety of cases, with the common characteristic that the plaintiffs were Latino.

Plaintiff Vina Barcelo said she was suspended without pay for 30 days for her part in using university funds to pay for wedding and baby showers while a higher ranking employee was given a substantial raise and suspended three days.

Michael Suarez, one of the deans, was fired in February 2001 after working at the university for 16 months. He is now working for the UC system.

The other dean in the suit, Rebecca Chavez, said she was not considered for a promotion and that because of harassment and discrimination was forced to quit. She works for UC Berkeley.

Before this case, a series of sexual harassment suits had targeted the Fullerton campus in recent years.

Longtime employee Pamela Losco was paid $447,000 in one of two sexual harassment suits filed against the campus and Charles B. Darke, then the director of the student health center. Losco's assistant, Debbie Melsheimer, received $100,000.

The university system also agreed to pay Losco's brother, David Losco, $457,000 to settle a related lawsuit. David Losco, who was Cal State Fullerton's personnel director, alleged he was demoted because the university thought he had helped his sister in her suit and gave information to a state auditor about financial misdeeds by campus officials.

In another case, a jury awarded assistant biology professor Sandra Banack and her attorney $311,000 for her sexual harassment claims.

Last month, a jury ruled in favor of Cal State Fullerton in a lawsuit, filed by Kenneth Nash, a psychological counselor at the campus for about 25 years, that charged discrimination, harassment and retaliation.

Clara Potes-Fellow, a spokeswoman for the university system, said Fullerton was average in the number of claims against it and settlements paid.

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