Self-Represented Med School Professor’s Multiple Procedural, Evidentiary Problems Cost Her in Discrimination Case

Abraham Lincoln reputedly said that “he who represents himself has a fool for a client.” The central thrust of this statement is that cases in which a party represents herself almost always end poorly for that person. This is especially true for non-lawyers who represent themselves. The law, especially employment law, is full of specifics, details, and requirements that even an intelligent and knowledgeable non-lawyer couldn’t reasonably be expected to know. That’s why it is almost always the right move to retain experienced Georgia employment counsel to represent you in your discrimination case.

A cautionary example of this point was the case of Wen, a professor at the medical school of a major private university in Florida. Wen’s time at the med school did not go as she had planned. She started with a tenure-track position in 2007 but, by 2011, having been deemed by the faculty to be making insufficient progress toward tenure, switched to a research track. That didn’t help, so the faculty voted in October 2011 not to renew Wen, and her employment terminated in October 2012.

The professor sued the school, arguing that it was liable for racial discrimination and retaliation. Ultimately, she lost on all of her claims. In many ways, her case was beset by procedural problems, which offer a lesson about the problems that can befall a plaintiff who attempts to represent herself. (The docket in Wen’s case showed she initially had an attorney in the District Court, but, by the time that court ruled in 2015, she was self-represented.)

First off, there are the procedural hurdles that go with a Title VII racial discrimination claim. Title VII requires an employee to do what’s known as “exhausting her administrative remedies” before she can go to court. In these types of discrimination matters, that means filing a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The law gives an employee in a state like Florida 300 days to file that EEOC claim.

This was a problem for the professor. Generally, the 300-day time period starts running from the time your employer takes an adverse action against you. In this case, the professor was clearly on notice that her employer had taken an adverse action against her when it sent her the termination letter, dated Oct. 7, 2011. By waiting until March 2013 to file with the EEOC, her complaint was well outside the time period allowed by the law.

A procedural error also cost the professor a retaliation claim she desired to assert. When pursuing your case, you must complete something called an “EEOC Charge.” That’s a one-page form with several checkboxes you have to check regarding the claims you want to bring in your case. Wen checked the race, national origin, and sex discrimination boxes. She didn’t check the retaliation one. Under the law, that meant she failed to exhaust her administrative remedies and couldn’t pursue the retaliation claim.

The professor also had problems with regard to complying with the legal proof standards for a discrimination claim. If you don’t have direct evidence of discrimination, you can still win if you satisfy the McDonnell Douglas test for a circumstantial case. If you make a prima facie showing of discrimination, the employer has to offer a legitimate reason for its action. Then you have the obligation to demonstrate that the claimed non-discriminatory reasons were just pretexts for discrimination.

In this case, the school stated that it terminated the professor for poor performance. It had certain standards, such as publication of scholarly work, which she had not met. This placed the professor in the position of demonstrating that these reasons were just pretexts. Her attempts to do so fell far short. According to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, the professor “largely either admitted the statements or responded by stating ‘without knowledge.’” She also did “not actually contradict that she was fired based on her poor performance, much less offer evidence to support that discrimination was the real reason.”

While deciding to represent yourself in your discrimination case may seem fine at first, the chances are high that it will cost you in the end. Instead of going it alone, put the knowledgeable Georgia race discrimination attorneys at Parks, Chesin & Walbert to work for you. Our attorneys have been effectively representing both employees and employers in their discrimination cases for many years and are ready to help you.

To speak with one of our lawyers about your case, call 404-873-8048.

More blog posts:

Lack of ‘Similarly Situated’ Males Dooms Tennessee Professor’s Sex Discrimination Case, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, May 26, 2017

Tennessee Call Center Worker’s Poor Attendance Dooms Her ADA Case, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, March 15, 2016

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