University of Iowa settles professor's discrimination lawsuit for $325,000, admits no wrongdoing

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A former University of Iowa employee who says she was discriminated against based on age and gender received a $325,000 settlement Tuesday from the state, which admitted no wrongdoing.

Pam Ries, the former director of a program within the UI College of Education, filed a lawsuit against the university, the Board of Regents and the state in 2018. She had been fired from her job a year before at age 61 and replaced with a younger male employee who was paid more, a series of actions she argued constitute gender and age discrimination, unequal pay and retaliation.

UI and other defendants disagreed with the claims. They said Ries was fired due to work performance and replaced with someone more apt for the job.

The case would have gone to trial last month had it not been settled. The amount of the settlement received final approval by the State Appeal Board on Tuesday.

One of the main obstacles in the case related to the university's failure to follow human resources protocol in terminating Ries, Iowa Assistant Attorney General Anne Updegraff told the appeal board Tuesday.

Ries had received good reviews for her performance as director of the university's Realizing Educational and Career Hopes program, Updegraff said.

Then, "all of the sudden she was terminated," she said.

"That was the hurdle in that (case). Juries expect you to follow your steps. If you have a manual that says 'this is the course of action that's taken to try to deal with employment performance issues' and you don't do that, then the reason is somewhat suspect."

The $325,000 settlement to be paid out by the state will be split between Ries and her legal team. Of the $177,666 that will go to Ries, $50,000 is in response to a claim for lost wages and the rest for non-wage compensatory damages.

In a statement Tuesday, UI spokesperson Jeneane Beck said "the university does not agree with the assertions made by Ms. Ries, but the settlement allowed the parties to reach a mutual agreement that brings the matter to a close. She remains employed by the university."

Ries is a professor of elementary and special education.

University of Iowa banners hang from light poles, Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021, in Iowa City, Iowa.
University of Iowa banners hang from light poles, Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021, in Iowa City, Iowa.

What are the facts of the case?

Ries assumed her role as director of Realizing Education and Career Hopes in 2013. REACH is a certificate program for students with cognitive, learning and intellectual disabilities within the College of Education.

Ries was removed from the director position in June 2017. She remained employed by UI as a clinical professor, a role she held since 2000 prior to joining the REACH program.

Her termination took place about one year after the College of Education transitioned deans. Daniel Clay took on the role in the summer of 2016.

Ries re-applied to the REACH director's role twice while the university attempted to fill it. She was rejected both times, once during an internal search and again during an external search by a search firm.

UI selected William Loyd Jr. as director of the REACH program in August 2018. His salary was $160,000; Ries' was $131,968 at the time she was terminated. He is seven years younger than Ries, court documents show.

Ries approached a university ombudsperson about her concerns about discrimination, the lawsuit says. She also filed an administrative complaint with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission in November 2017.

Contrary to UI's request, court found enough evidence to proceed

Much of the back-and-forth in the lawsuit boiled down to disputes over Ries' job performance — which she says was well-received, UI says was poor — and the requirements of the job itself that led to the hiring of her replacement.

The lawsuit said Ries was "blindsided" when Clay told her of "problems" with the program she oversaw that necessitated her removal from the job. She wasn't given specifics, her lawsuit alleges.

In a meeting with Clay and a HR representative, according to the lawsuit, Ries was handed two potential letters to share with the public: one stating she had resigned from the job, the other suggesting the college had "decided to go another way with leadership."

"(HR) then gave (Ries) a termination letter and told her that she would formally receive a copy when she decided 'what to do.' (Ries) asked for clarification and said 'you mean retire?' to which (HR) nodded her head affirmatively," Ries' lawsuit alleges.

Ries argued that her performance as REACH director had been received positively when reporting to Dean Nicholas Colangelo, Clay's predecessor. She said she never received warnings or disciplinary action, and instead had "received positive feedback from members of the campus community including President Bruce Harreld."

The lawsuit alleges that after being fired from the REACH directorship, Ries was paid more than $100,000 less in wages and benefits as a professor.

"Defendants’ decisions ... were influenced by the operation of age and gender biases which were relied upon in the decisions to demote her, pay her lower wages and benefits, and replace her with a less qualified, younger male, among other things," the lawsuit alleges.

It also claimed that Clay had demoted other older workers in the College of Education to be replaced with younger people.

The defendants argued that Ries had received "consistent and expressly negative assessments about her leadership skills, the type of environment she fostered within REACH, as well as her preference for certain employees," according to their motion for summary judgement filed in August.

"(Ries') claims boil down to her belief that she should still be the Director of REACH," reads the document submitted by Attorney General of Iowa Thomas Miller. "However, the record is clear that (Ries) was simply not a good leader for the REACH program. She was removed and remains a valuable asset to the University’s clinical staff, where she is a much better fit."

Along with Ries' job performance — and documentation of it — much of the case centered on the qualifications necessary to lead the REACH program that led up to the hiring of Ries' successor.

UI lowered the qualifications for the position after Ries was fired, from requiring a Ph.D. to a bachelor's degree.

UI explained that move was to "broaden the pool of prospective leadership," according to court documents. Clay testified that he wanted to find a candidate who could manage a budget and had experience with disability advocacy.

Clay, who remains the dean, was one of four finalists in the UI presidential search last year, the only internal candidate. His involvement in Ries' lawsuit was cited as a negative by some respondents to a survey about the four finalists.

Cleo Krejci covers education for the Iowa City Press-Citizen. You can reach her at ckrejci@press-citizen.com.

This article originally appeared on Iowa City Press-Citizen: University of Iowa settles 2018 discrimination lawsuit for $325,000

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