A former instructor at a for-profit technical college has won a $324,650 arbitration award against her former employer as a result of racial discrimination she suffered during her time there—but the school’s owner has refused to pay up, and the teacher is now pursuing the case in federal court, her attorneys report.
Joshua Van Kampen, Sean Herrmann and Kevin Murphy of Van Kampen Law in Charlotte report that their client, Ravelle Pearsall, began working for Miller-Motte College in Wilmington as a cosmetology instructor in 2012. Pearsall, the only African-American teacher in the department, was fired in 2015, ostensibly for poor performance.
But Van Kampen said that Pearsall’s students testified that Pearsall had been an excellent teacher and that she had been the target of racist behavior by the department chair. Further, the department chair’s then-boyfriend provided Pearsall with text messages he had received in which the chair had referred to Pearsall using racist slurs.
Pearsall brought a discrimination claim against the Delta Career Corporation, which owns the Miller-Motte chain of colleges, and the case was taken to arbitration pursuant to a mandatory arbitration clause in Pearsall’s employment contract. On Oct. 29, Carl Horn, a former magistrate judge at the U.S. District Court in Charlotte, awarded Pearsall $324,650, including two years’ of lost wages, $50,000 for emotional distress, and attorneys’ fees.
Van Kampen said that the more relaxed evidentiary rules used for arbitration meant that there were no issues with the admissibility of the inflammatory text messages, which could have been an issue in federal court. But Van Kampen thought that the messages were less influential on Horn’s ruling than the testimony of Pearsall’s former students, who rallied to her defense.
“The arbitrator thought it was really significant that not a single student testified on behalf of the school. The school contended that there were student complaints about [Pearsall’s] performance, and that’s why she was terminated. We lined up students who drove for hours and hours to testify live,” Van Kampen said. “I think the student’s testimony was what was most compelling, because the students corroborated that the department chair referred to [Pearsall] as a ‘monkey’ and made other racist comments about her.”
Van Kampen added that the case illustrates the importance of the attorney fee-shifting provisions under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Because Miller-Motte pays its instructors meager salaries, the potential for lost wages and benefits was inherently limited. But the prospect of recovering attorneys’ fees under Title VII made it feasible for his firm to pursue a case that was strong on the merits, he said.
“You can see why those were important, because we were able to be rewarded for a job well done even though the monetary recovery wasn’t as high as it might have been in other cases. So you shouldn’t pass on cases just because the client might not be a high wage earner, if it’s a good case,” Van Kampen said.
Pearsall has hit an unexpected snag in recovering her award, however. Van Kampen said that Delta’s counsel stopped communicating with him after the award came in. On Nov. 27, the firm filed a petition in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina asking the court to confirm and enforce the arbitration award and award interest.
“This company forced an [arbitration] policy on its employees, and now that it’s lost under that policy it appears to be ignoring the result,” Van Kampen said. “My client is going to be evicted now on the eve of Christmas because this company won’t honor the award.”
Anne Bibeau and Thomas Chappel of Vandeventer Black in Norfolk, Virginia represented Delta Career Corporation. Bibeau did not return calls seeking comment in time for the print edition of this story.
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VERDICT REPORT – RACIAL DISCRIMINATION
Injuries alleged: Lost wages and benefits and emotional distress
Case name: Ravelle Pearsall v. Delta Career Corporation
Arbitration organization: American Arbitration Association
Arbitrator: Hon. Carl Horn III
Date of verdict: Oct. 29, 2017
Special damages: $91,020 for two years lost wages and fringe benefits, $50,000 emotional distress, and $183,630.68 in attorney’s fees and costs
Attorneys for plaintiff: Joshua Van Kampen, Sean Herrmann and Kevin Murphy of Van Kampen Law in Charlotte
Attorneys for defendant: Anne Bibeau and Thomas Chappel of Vandeventer Black in Norfolk, Virginia