The lawsuit also said UNC violated the North Carolina law that protects state employee whistleblowers from retaliation from employers. Willingham, a former student-athlete learning specialist, resigned at the end of the spring semester after meeting with Chancellor Carol Folt on April 21.
Joel Curran, the vice chancellor for communications and public affairs, said UNC is aware of the lawsuit and provided a statement on behalf of UNC.
“We respect the right of any current or former employee to speak out on important University and national issues,” he said. “We believe the facts will demonstrate that Ms. Willingham was treated fairly and appropriately while she was employed at Carolina.”
The lawsuit listed many examples to support Willingham’s claim that UNC created a hostile work environment, including comments questioning her character made by Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Jim Dean at a faculty meeting as well as a substantial increase in work without an increase in pay.
While Willingham could not comment on the lawsuit, her lawyer, J. Heydt Philbeck, said his client wants to be reinstated at the University without retaliation.
“She didn’t want to leave in the first place,” said Philbeck, an attorney with Bailey & Dixon law firm in Raleigh. “She left because of a hostile work environment and the retaliation taken against her.”
Philbeck said Willingham’s passion for assisting students with their academics is the main reason she is seeking reinstatement.
The lawsuit also calls for compensation for losses and damages, but Philbeck said it is too early to speculate what the amount would be.
John Branch, an attorney at Raleigh’s Shanahan law group, said the case is unique for typical workplace lawsuits.
“What is unusual about this lawsuit is that it does not contend that the University decreased Ms. Willingham’s pay or otherwise terminated her employment,” he said. “Rather, she contends that the University improperly changed her job duties and functions in response to her being outspoken about the academic scandal.”
Philbeck gave a straightforward answer for what he is expecting to come from the suit.
“My expectation is to bring justice to (Willingham).”
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