Wednesday, July 24, 2024

UNCW diversity admission director pursuing second lawsuit after resigning from “lost cause” position

LaTasha Jones is suing the university for retaliation in response to her first lawsuit and settlement.(Port City Daily/Preston Lennon)

WILMINGTON — What she wanted was equal treatment. Instead, former UNCW staff member LaTasha Jones said her 2019 lawsuit isolated her from the campus community and created a hostile work environment. 

Three years later, Jones is suing the university again, this time for retaliation in response to her first lawsuit and settlement. Jones claims UNCW’s actions violated the Civil Rights Act and is seeking $25,000 in punitive damages. UNCW maintains the accusations are unfounded and is seeking to dismiss the case. 

READ MORE: Federal lawsuit alleges racial discrimination at UNCW, points to broader issues

This time she doesn’t plan to settle. 

After working as a freshman admissions coordinator for a decade, Jones filed a lawsuit against UNCW in 2019 accusing her two direct superiors — Director of Admissions Marcio Moreno and Assistant Director Lauren Franklin  — of discrimination based on Jones’ identity as a Black woman.

Jones said she had been passed over twice for promotions in favor of her white counterparts, despite her excellent performance marks and experience. She said after submitting a complaint to the human resources department, she was told there was no place for her to grow at UNCW.

“We are treated quite badly at UNCW — Black people in general, but specifically Black women,” Jones said. “We are not important to them, we are supposed to take anything and everything and not say anything or not feel that our mental, physical well-being is in jeopardy. Meanwhile, we have to be cognizant of our white female counterparts’ feelings and what they do and how they speak to people in inappropriate ways and it’s not held against them.”

The two parties reached a settlement in October 2020. It stipulated Jones was to be promoted to a new position — senior assistant director of admissions for diversity initiatives — fit with a $11,000-salary increase. Provost James Winebrake was to be her supervisor until a new admissions director was hired.

In the year since Jones’ filing, Moreno retired as director and next-in-line Franklin had moved to interim director. 

Jones’ 2019 suit noted “due to her respect for the university, Plaintiff [Jones] remains employed and has refused to resign.”

“I stayed because I wanted to make a difference and I wanted to be there for Black people,” Jones said.  

Her resilience started to wane after she began her new role in October 2020. Seven months in, the provost started diverting more oversight to Franklin. The interim director was made permanent the following September and Jones was placed under Franklin’s leadership. 

Jones described the move as a loophole around her settlement agreement; technically, a new admissions director was hired. However, it was the same person formerly accused of discrimination against Jones.

Jones protested the move. 

“[I said] I don’t think I can do that, I fought for three years not to do that,” Jones said. 

Jones filed her second lawsuit on Dec. 20, 2021, accusing the university of retaliation. She said she realized the negative response to her lawsuit extended far beyond the admissions department. 

“People don’t want to touch me with a 10-foot pole because they disagreed with what I did, or they don’t want to be associated with what I did,” Jones said. 

Jones claimed the people she was fighting for — Black students, faculty and staff — were steering clear of her. 

“Between racist white people and Black people that don’t want to take action — I don’t work on lost causes,” Jones said.

She resigned in July 2022. 

The case 

The contents of Jones’ current lawsuit details the post-settlement actions by Franklin and Elizabeth Grimes, associate vice chancellor for human resources demonstrating retaliation against Jones.

Jones said her unfair treatment began immediately after she started in her new role. She told Port City Daily she had to “fight for the stuff in her legal agreement,” including her pay increase. Jones reported having to call the payroll department and human resources to ensure her position and salary were correct. Her position was not placed in the payroll system for four months following the agreement, she said. 

“[UNCW] did not treat it as a settlement at all, they treated it as if they were doing me a favor,” she said.

Under the supervision of the provost, Jones said she had more freedom and felt she could get a lot accomplished — she was hopeful. But that didn’t last. 

According to her civil complaint, the provost began to dedicate more responsibility to Franklin in May 2021.

“He pretty much said, ‘I don’t have time for you, you’re going to go to Lauren [Franklin],’” Jones said. 

While under her supervision, the complaint states Franklin was “distorting the quality of her work in a negative manner.” Jones said Franklin was not in favor of separate positions and programs for diversity, therefore undermining the importance of Jones’ work. 

The lawsuit claims Franklin also wanted to complete Jones’ performance review for the 2021-2022 cycle before she had received her previous review from the provost. Franklin had not been her supervisor for a large majority of the term.

“How am I going to go over goals for next year, when the provost hasn’t even finished that?” Jones asked. 

When she pointed it out to her superiors, Jones said Franklin continued to insist she complete the evaluation, the lawsuit alleges. According to Jones, Grimes validated her human resources complaint, but told Jones she should meet with Franklin. When Jones continued her resistance, Grimes’s suggestion became a requirement. 

“Within less than 24 hours, I had two white women threaten me for discipline action,” Jones said, referring to Grimes and Franklin. 

Finally, Jones relented and agreed to a joint meeting with Franklin and Winebrake, the latter taking the lead on her evaluation. Jones said the encounter lasted around 5 minutes. 

During this power struggle, Jones initiated the complaint process with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on May 5, 2021. The commission investigates potential violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and issues charges based on their findings. Jones underwent the same process for her 2019 complaint.

In September, Franklin was hired as permanent director. Jones said the university did not open an application nor field interviews for the position. She said the admissions department gathered over Zoom to be told Franklin was going to be hired. They were also given a survey to gauge satisfaction with the choice. 

“It wasn’t objective at all,” Jones said. “The way the questions were phrased, you could not give a bad response.” 

The EEOC issued Jones a “right-to-sue” letter and charged the university with retaliation on Oct. 25, 2021. Jones followed up with her lawsuit two months later. 

Feeling trapped

While centered on Franklin and upper administration, the lawsuit also accuses her coworkers of creating a “hostile work environment for Plaintiff [Jones] and was in retaliation for her prior EEOC activity.” Jones said her colleagues gave her the silent treatment; she also had to remind people of her new title. 

The effects of that environment were detrimental to Jones’ health, to the worry of her friends and family, she said.

“I started having panic attacks, I couldn’t breathe inside the offices,” Jones said. 

She often would go on walks, she said, to calm down. 

Jones reported she was diagnosed with PTSD due to the stress and anxiety from her job. Her civil complaint notes she was authorized medical leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act in the fall of 2021.

Having protested Franklin’s appointment as her supervisor, Jones began to explore other options. She requested she move to the Office of Institutional Diversity & Inclusion, led by interim Chief Diversity Office Donyell Roseboro. She would retain her same position but be supervised by a different department.

“I was putting up such a fuss to get out from under Lauren [Franklin], and the only reasonable place for me to go would be OIDI because I’m diversity initiatives,” Jones said. 

Jones said UNCW dragged its feet on moving her, despite complaints that her mental health was taking a toll due to rising tensions. She said the university staff’s delay in moving her prompted her to file the second lawsuit. 

“My lawyer was saying, ‘This is not what was agreed on,’” Jones said. Jones is represented by Greensboro lawyer Nancy Quinn. 

Despite filing a second lawsuit, Jones continued to work. She was moved to OIDI in March 2022. While there, she said she experienced disillusionment with diversity efforts led by the OIDI team. 

“Once I found out [Donyell’s] more political than a civil activist, I knew there was no hope,” Jones said. 

She also noticed the UNCW community she was trying to improve only had two views of her — neither positive. The first, mostly disseminated by white people she said, was characterized by phrases like, “UNCW is not that racist,” “she’s exaggerating,” “she’s causing problems,” “she was an angry Black woman,” and “she had an attitude.” 

However, she found the Black community equally isolating. “I’m laying low,” “I don’t want to have anything to do with it,” and “I don’t need that trouble” are phrases Jones used to describe their response to her lawsuit.

Jones said she no longer saw the point in continuing her employment at UNCW.

“I said, ‘I can’t fight for y’all anymore, I have to fight for myself,’” Jones said. “And that is why I left and that is also why I continue on with my lawsuit.”

Jones said Roseboro, who had not checked in on her at any point during or after the first lawsuit, reached out after Jones submitted her resignation in July. Jones said the chief diversity officer asked her what she could have done to retain her. 

Jones said she replied: “Nothing.” 

The aftermath 

Jones’s new position was created to bridge the gap between admissions and diversity. In the end, she found it will take a lot more than one position to change the structure at UNCW.

The UNC System overall has a 21% enrollment of Black people. At UNCW, Black students have historically made up less than 5% of the population. Over the years, that percentage has not changed much, sitting at 5% in the fall 2021

Black residents make up about 14% of New Hanover County’s population and about 22% of North Carolina’s population.

Overall, UNCW’s minority population — which include Black, Hispanic, Asian, American  Indian/Alaskan Native, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander populations — is 33%. People of color make up 20% of staff and 22% of faculty positions. 

“UNCW will not change unless there is policy change — someone goes to court to make a policy change — or the powers that be really want to change it,” Jones said. “It ain’t just the faculty and staff keeping this institution racist. It’s the culture.” 

From her experience, Jones said UNCW is putting on the appearance of addressing diversity without actually taking substantial action. That’s why she continues with her lawsuit: to make a lasting change. 

“They know how to fix problems, they know how to address it, they just aren’t going to do it,” Jones said. “What they do is form committees: ‘Oh, let’s send out this survey’ let’s do this research.’ We don’t need any more damn research.” 

Jones said she plans to pursue $25,000 retribution, not for the money, but to send a message.

“I’m hoping to hit their pockets because some people don’t learn until it hits their pockets,” she said.

In February, Attorney General Josh Stein, who represents state entities in legal battles, requested to delay discovery in the case. A judge has yet to rule on that matter.

UNCW spokesperson Krissy Vick said UNCW maintains “claims by former UNCW employee Ms. LaTasha Jones are unfounded.” The university filed for the case to be dismissed, stating there are no conclusive facts presented to support the notion Jones was in a hostile work environment.

According to a legal response Vick shared with PCD, the “Plaintiff has failed to state a claim of retaliation under Title VII.”

“While Plaintiff claims that having Ms. Franklin as her supervisor was ‘deleterious’ to her health, she provides no examples of actions taken toward her,” the dismissal continues. “Further, despite claiming that Ms. Franklin ‘distorted the quality of Plaintiff’s work in a negative manner and initiat[ed] performance improvement steps that were unwarranted,’ the only example of any alleged actions taken by Ms. Franklin was a desire to perform Plaintiff’s annual performance evaluation and establish her performance goals for the year. These do not constitute adverse employment actions.”

“We’re just going to have to wait it out,” Jones said. 

In the meantime, Jones plans to enroll in the online aviation program with Liberty University, with the in-person component taken at ILM International Airport. 

“I can’t do higher education anymore, it is so traumatizing for me,” Jones said.

Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at 

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