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​Rice University denies allegations in lawsuit by former employee


By Emily Abdow     2/28/18 3:03pm

Rice University filed an answer on Feb. 7 to a lawsuit brought by former employee Cylette Willis-Sass denying her claim that the university violated the Family and Medical Leave Act in terminating her employment.

Willis-Sass filed the initial lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, Houston Division, in August, stating that Rice University unlawfully terminated her employment on July 7 after she requested leave under the FMLA.

The lawsuit was dismissed on Nov. 13 when the plaintiff’s attorney, Ellen Sprovach, missed a show cause deadline, but reinstated Jan.11. after the plaintiff filed a motion stating Sprovach missed the deadline because she went to the emergency room following complications from a knee relacement surgery.

Rice’s answer states the actions taking by Rice against Willis-Sass were based on legitimate and nondiscriminatory reasons. Willis-Sass claims Rice never provided her with disciplinary action or placed her on a performance improvement plan, a claim Rice denies.

“Evidence of conduct by Willis-Sass that would have resulted in the termination of employment operates to bar relief for any alleged wrongdoing by Rice University in this case,” the answer states.

According to Willis-Sass’ complaint, she worked at Rice as a Program Director of Rice Online until July 1, 2017, when she was promoted to Senior Academic Design Advisor. The answer filed by Rice’s attorney Teresa Valderrama denies that Willis-Sass was promoted. A May 19 Rice News story states Willis-Sass would be promoted on July 1.

Willis-Sass alleges she requested FMLA paperwork for “a serious medical condition” from Marian Phillips, human resources benefits specialist and notified Rebecca Gould, Rice’s director of employee relations, of her request.

Rice’s answer states Phillips received an inquiry from Willis-Sass regarding FMLA paperwork, but claims Willis-Sass failed to both provide proper notice for leave and meet the administrative requirements to obtain leave under the FMLA and Rice’s protocols.

The FMLA requires employers to provide eligible employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for reasons including a serious health condition that makes employees unable to perform their jobs, according to the FMLA page of Rice’s human resources website.

“Rice university had reasonable grounds to believe its actions, if any are determined unlawful over Rice University’s objections, were not a violation of the FMLA,” the answer states.

According to court documents, a pretrial conference was held Feb. 12 to establish deadlines. The deadline for discovery, a pre-trial process where each party can obtain information from the other, is Nov. 16, according to the docket order filed Feb. 13.

The order states mediation, the settling of a legal dispute through using a third party, is required. The mediation deadline is set for Dec. 4, before the Dec. 14 deadline for dispositive motions, which can dispose of parts of or the entire lawsuit.

Rice University does not comment on personnel matters or pending litigation, according to Rice’s senior director of News and Media Relations B.J. Almond.

Sprovach said she does not comment on her client’s ongoing cases.

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