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Former Dean Sues Chapman Over Dismissal

University official hired in 1998 to improve the law school says she was let go because of mental health problems brought on by job stress.

September 02, 2004|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

An associate dean at Chapman University claims in a lawsuit that the stress of trying to improve the university's law school took such a toll on her mental health that she tried to kill herself.

According to the lawsuit, filed Aug. 26 in Orange County Superior Court in Santa Ana, Joanne Telerico was hired to help recruit high-caliber students and improve bar exam results for the school's graduates. When she eventually told university officials that the stress of her job was causing her psychological problems, they let her go, the suit contends.

Chapman officials had no comment on the allegations, saying through a spokeswoman the university had yet to be served with a copy of the lawsuit.

Telerico could not be reached for comment. But her attorney, Grace E. Emery of Orange, said the lawsuit was filed after negotiations with the university over a severance package broke down. The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages for wrongful termination.

Hired in April 1998, Telerico was in charge of admissions, marketing and recruitment at a time when Chapman's law school suffered from dwindling enrollment, unsatisfactory bar results and lawsuits filed by students when the school failed to win American Bar Assn. accreditation.

Telerico, 56, who holds a master's degree in business administration, came to Chapman from the University of Hawaii Law School, where she was an assistant dean.

While at Chapman, Telerico often worked 80- to 100-hour weeks and traveled extensively on behalf of the law school during a 4 1/2-year stint, Emery said.

Although the school gained ABA accreditation a month before her arrival, she helped improve the school's overall performance by recruiting top students, providing more scholarships and tightening admissions guidelines, the lawsuit contends.

Meanwhile, Telerico's responsibilities were doubled to oversee financial aid, the registrar's office, career services and other departments. Her yearly salary, which began at $82,000, rose to $115,000 over her tenure at the school.

Chapman opened its law school in 1995, promising students that it would win accreditation by the time the first class graduated in three years. Accreditation is crucial because it allows students to take the bar exam in every state and provides a respected stamp of approval for the school's degrees.

After Chapman's law school was denied accreditation by the ABA in 1997, several students filed a class-action lawsuit alleging that they had invested in a "useless legal education." As a result, the university offered tuition refunds that cost the school about $1.25 million.

On campus, times were tense because of the law school's shaky start and push to succeed.

"It was a very stressful environment for the faculty and the students because of the ups and downs of the accreditation issue," said Denis Bilodeau, who was in the inaugural class but opted to accept the refund and quit the school.

Another student, James Henry, graduated and now practices patent law in Costa Mesa.

"They had an extremely ambitious plan at the time they opened that law school," Henry said. "There were some nail-biting moments there."

Founding Dean Jeremy Miller stepped down in the midst of the controversy.

The lawsuit says the pressure also nearly cost Telerico her life.

She suffered an emotional breakdown on June 14, 2002, which led to her involuntary commitment for attempted suicide, Telerico claims in the suit without elaboration.

She says that in November 2002, she sought permission from the law school's dean, Parham Williams, to take a leave, but was afraid to say why.

University officials persuaded her to stay on the job, allowing her to work for six months from Alabama, where she lived with friends. As a recruiter, Telerico would travel extensively from September through November, handling her other job duties by fax and email.

But after five months, Williams ordered her back to the campus in Orange, the suit contends. Telerico expressed regret at the university's alleged failure to accommodate her and offered her resignation effective Aug. 31, 2003. Rather than accept her resignation, Chapman President James L. Doti and Williams urged her to reconsider her decision, the suit contends.

Telerico then confided to Williams about her mental health problems and requested a four-month "mental health break."

She was turned down and her resignation was accepted, said Emery.

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