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Former employee sues Rice for unlawful termination


By Emily Abdow     10/18/17 12:56pm

A former Rice University employee has filed a lawsuit against the institution alleging that her employment was terminated after she requested leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

“The University denies numerous claims in the lawsuit, but we cannot elaborate because Rice does not comment to the media on personnel matters or pending litigation,” B.J. Almond, Rice’s senior director of News and Media Relations, said.

Cylette Willis-Sass was terminated on July 7, according to the complaint she filed on Aug. 15 in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, Houston Division. Willis-Sass alleges she requested FMLA paperwork for “a serious medical condition” from Marian Phillips, human resources benefits specialist, and also notified Rebecca Gould, Rice’s director of employee relations, of her request. Gould and Phillips did not respond to requests for comment.

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.

“All Rice employees are welcome and encouraged to discuss an FMLA leave with a human resources benefits specialist, who can assist them in understanding their rights, options and how to request such a leave,” Almond said.

Willis-Sass’s lawsuit alleges she was fired as a result of requesting FMLA leave, not for a legitimate business reason. The lawsuit further claims a Rice news release announced Willis-Sass’s promotion from program director to senior academic design advisor of Rice Online on July 1, six days prior to her termination. While there is no available July news release in Rice’s archives announcing Willis-Sass’s promotion, a May 19 Rice News story states Willis-Sass would be promoted on July 1. Rice’s Department of Human Resources would not confirm whether Willis-Sass had been promoted on July 1.

Willis-Sass alleges that Rice never provided her with disciplinary action or placed her on a performance improvement plan prior to her termination. In addition, Willis-Sass claims Rice had not performed an evaluation of her for the last three years of her employment.

Houston-based employment attorney Clayton Craighead said the outcome of the case will hinge on the legitimacy of Rice’s reason for terminating Willis-Sass’s employment. Rice has not filed a response to Willis-Sass’s allegations.

“If the plaintiff's complaint is true that this employee didn't have any sort of write-ups or disciplinary history, I would suspect the reason for termination must have been a pretty good reason. Because ordinarily you don't just mess up once and get fired unless it's something really, really bad,” Craighead said.

Willis-Sass’ lawsuit asks for actual damages, as well as back pay, front pay and benefits and compensatory damages for mental anguish. Back pay accounts for lost wages from when she was fired to when the judgement occurs and front pay accounts for the time after the judgment when Sass may be unemployed, according to Craighead.

Craighead said that FMLA provides liquidated damages to a plaintiff who prevails in a lawsuit, which doubles the amount of damages awarded to the plaintiff.

The court entered an order on Oct. 11 for Willis-Sass to present evidence that she has served Rice, which consists of notifying Rice of the lawsuit through an individual with the authority to deliver legal documents. Rice has no obligation to appear in court until it has been served with the lawsuit, Craighead said. The order states failure to serve Rice by Nov. 13 will result in the dismissal of the case. The order also reschedules the initial pretrial conference for Dec. 18.

Craighead said it is uncommon for the pretrial conference to be scheduled before the defendant files an answer to the plaintiff.

“I’ve never seen a court do that,” Craighead said. “They may be doing that to force the plaintiff to get the ball rolling and get the defendant served, or maybe it has something to do with weird stuff they’re going through because of Harvey.”

According to Craighead, the complaint filed by Willis-Sass is just the beginning of a process which is likely to take at least a year and a half and be resolved out of court. The December meeting will likely be administrative and avoid delving into the details of the dispute, Craighead said.

Willis-Sass’s attorney, Ellen Sprovach, did not reply to requests for comment. Craighead said Sprovach’s silence may be strategic.

“Let's just say there's some really egregious conduct on the part of the university,” Craighead said. “[Sprovach] might have a bargaining tool to say, ‘Hey, you guys don't want this information to go public, and so you need to resolve this case.’ Whereas if she comes out strong now and makes all these public releases, it could reduce the school's desire to settle to the case.”

This article has been updated to say "a May 19 Rice News Story."

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