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Judy Greenwald

Dismissal of lawsuit by teacher fired for inappropriate sexual comments upheld

April 21, 2014 - 3:20pm

Karen Lopez Austen Weatherford College


A federal appeals court has upheld dismissal of retaliation and discrimination claims filed by a terminated college teacher who had continual conflicts with both colleagues and students, including allegedly secretly photographing the assistant basketball coach as he worked out and commenting on a student's virginity.

Karen Lopez Austen was hired in 2007 as a professor and department chair of kinesiology at community college Weatherford College in Weatherford, Texas, according to Friday's ruling by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans in Dr. Karen Lopez Austen v. Weatherford College, of the Parker County Junior College District.

Ms. Austen immediately came into conflict with several of her colleagues, including the assistant men's basketball coach, who complained Ms. Austin “had made improper comments to him regarding his physique, initiated confrontations with him and often secretly took photographs of him as he was working out,” according to the ruling.

In addition, a secretary in her department complained Ms. Austen had inappropriately invited her daughter to her office, showed her inappropriate photos, and asked to measure her with a measuring tape, according to the ruling.

Ms. Austen was eventually demoted as department chair and subsequently filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2008, charging sex discrimination and retaliation for filing grievances related to sexual discrimination and harassment. The EEOC dismissed the case.

In 2009, without admitting liability, the college entered into a settlement with Ms. Austen where she agreed to release all claims in return for the college's agreement, among other things, to stop all current investigations and to remove five performance notices and disciplinary warnings from her personnel file.

“The following year, however, the complaints against Austen continued to roll in from old and new fronts,” said the appellate ruling, including one student's complaint that while she was using an exercise machine, Ms. Austin said, “Let's see if she's a virgin.”

In 2010, the college's board of trustees voted to not renew her contract. Ms. Austen filed a second charge with the EEOC, which also was dismissed.

She then filed suit on retaliation and sex and racial discrimination charges with the U.S. District Court in Fort Worth, Texas, which granted the college summary judgment dismissing the case.

Summary judgment upheld

A three-judge appellate court panel unanimously upheld the lower court's ruling.

“Austen has not established a prima facie case for either retaliation or discrimination, and even if … she has done so, she has failed to rebut the legitimate reasons for termination offered by the college,” said the ruling.

“What matters is not the truth of the underlying complaints and reports … but rather whether the college could legitimately have relied on them in deciding to terminate Austen,” said the panel.

“The college could do so. In light of the overwhelming number of documented, legitimate reasons for termination, Austen has failed to show either a causal connection or pretext sufficient to defeat summary judgment,” said the panel.

 



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