On Dovey's Wings: Former Employees Sue Howard University for $136.5 Million

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON -- Attorney Dovey J. Roundtree loves her alma mater.

"I love Howard University and I want Howard always to be a beacon of light and justice."

That's why she decided to represent more than three dozen former Howard University staff members who are suing the institution for $136.5 million in damages, claiming that they were wrongfully fired. Last month a Superior Court judge here dismissed claims by the university that the case had no merit.

Roundtree, a 1950 Howard law school alumna, says she is not convinced by the university's claims that its ailing fiscal condition forced the firings. "I want to see for myself just what's going on."

"Our contention is that Howard University did not follow their own rules in firing employees," says Roundtree, referring to the university's "blue book" or employee handbook of rules and regulations. "[Howard officials] say the blue book isn't a contract, but anybody can see that it is."

Howard University's general counsel, Norma Leftwich, would not comment in detail on the case. "We intend to vigorously defend the university in this lawsuit. Beyond that we really don't have anything further to say."

"The university was built and established on service and truth and Howard University has failed on both," says Alonzo Johnson, who was director of the university's support services and physical-facilities management when he was abruptly fired Nov. 9, 1994, after 32 years of service.

Johnson, a plaintiff, was among 400 administrative and support staff workers who lost their jobs in a mass layoff at the university in 1994 as part of what Howard officials called a restructuring plan. Dr. Joyce A. Ladner, the university's interim president at the time of the layoffs, said that legally she had no choice in executing the trustee-mandated cuts and restructuring efforts. The stop-gap measure was designed to close a $6.9-million budget deficit and eliminate non-essential jobs.

Not so, says the lawsuit filed here in Superior Court in October 1995. The suit argues that the restructuring plan was used to ferret out troublesome employees, many of whom had already filed sexual harassment and gender or race discrimination grievances against supervisors.

The suit names as defendants Dr. H. Patrick Swygert, the university's president; Dr. Thaddeus Garrett Jr., its board chairman; Ladner, who is now a member of the financial control board overseeing District of Columbia finances; and Dr. …