Former Brandeis employee wins discrimination lawsuit
The jury awarded the plaintiff $2.46 million in a lawsuit against Brandeis.
A Middlesex Superior Court jury awarded former Vice President of Human Resources Robin Nelson-Bailey $2.46 million in her lawsuit against the University for racial and gender-based discrimination. The jury reached the verdict on Aug. 30 following a 7-day trial.
“There were three major claims in the case — race discrimination, gender discrimination, and retaliation. They were all part of the case, and they all played a vital role in the trial,” Nelson-Bailey’s attorney, Matthew Fogelman, wrote in a Sept. 8 email to the Justice.
The case stems from Nelson-Bailey’s demotion in 2018 to the position of vice president of special projects in human resources. The demotion, which led to a decreased salary, was the result of a third-party investigation conducted by attorney Walter Prince and Associate Justice R. Malcolm Graham into the Brandeis Department of Athletics. Nelson-Bailey was demoted due to her involvement in the University’s 2017 HR investigation of former Brandeis basketball coach Brian Meehan.
Meehan had been accused of racist behavior towards Black members of the basketball team since he began working for the school in 2003. For many years the team was successful under Meehan, but he was known to be aggressive: screaming at players, treating them poorly, and making generally offensive remarks.
Former Title IX Coordinator and Director of Employee and Labor Relations Linda Shinomoto conducted the initial investigation on behalf of the school in 2017 after six student-athletes, five of whom were Black, came forward with complaints of Meehan’s behavior. There was little guidance in Brandeis’ policy on whether or not a written report should be filed at all. Nelson-Bailey pushed for the written report, but higher-ranking University officials opposed it. Ultimately, there was a written report, though higher-ranking University officials ensured there were redactions in the report that would be shared. Nelson-Bailey oversaw and assisted with the investigation by providing edits to the report, meeting with students, and reviewing University policies.
The 2021 Summary Judgment filed by Nelson-Bailey’s attorneys stated that the HR report concluded that Meehan had “violated the school’s racial discrimination policy and violated the school’s conduct/profanity policy.” While it was not the HR department’s responsibility to recommend actions against Meehan, Nelson-Bailey and Shinomoto both believed that Meehan needed to be fired.
A redacted version of the HR report was sent to then Vice President of Student Affairs, Sheryl Sousa. She used the report to decide what actions, if any, to take against Meehan. The Summary Judgment states that Sousa was a close friend of Meehan and his wife, and found that he did not violate any policies. Sousa concluded that Meehan should receive a warning and attend anger management classes.
Following the completion of the HR report, another Black student came forward, accusing Meehan of saying he would “ship him back to Africa.” The sports publication Deadspin wrote about the student’s experience and Meehan’s actions. On April 5, 2018, Liebowitz sent a message to the Brandeis community, informing them of Meehan’s termination. The article generated negative media attention for the University, and as a result, Brandeis requested a third-party report conducted by Prince and Graham. The report recommended, “as managers, [Athletic Director Lynne] Dempsey and Sousa are, ultimately, accountable for what happens in the operations they supervise.” While the report did recommend disciplining human resources leadership, it did not specifically mention Nelson-Bailey.
Following the release of the third-party report, Nelson-Bailey was informed that she would be demoted. She was one of three people demoted, all of whom were women, and was the only non-white woman. Nelson-Bailey was also the only Black woman to hold an upper-level position at Brandeis at the time.
“Brandeis administrators took appropriate personnel actions and did not discriminate or retaliate against Ms. Nelson-Bailey. The University relied on the results of an extensive, independent investigation to make personnel decisions, and to expand the options for community members to report discrimination,” Julie Jette, interim senior vice president of marketing and communications said in a Sept. 7 email to the Justice.
“[Nelson-Bailey’s] alleged misconduct paled in comparison to the other White females (Sousa and Dempsey) and the many White men who escaped unscathed,” the Summary Judgment expressed. Sousa received a severance package, while Dempsey and Nelson-Bailey both received demotions and pay cuts of 21%. The Summary Judgment also claimed that Nelson-Bailey received higher scrutiny than her white counterparts. She was placed on probation and was supervised by Larry Lewellen, who was promoted to Nelson-Bailey’s previous position and had reported to her. The summary judgment stated that Lewellen was “hostile and ensured her ultimate failure.”
Following her demotion Nelson-Bailey took a medical leave for anxiety and depression due to the “adverse treatment she faced,” which she had never previously experienced according to the summary judgment. In 2018, she filed a discrimination complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and later filed charges with the Middlesex County Superior Court. Nelson-Bailey was later fired by Brandeis in 2019.
“Brandeis abhors discrimination of any kind. We were very disappointed with the verdict and do not believe that it was supported by the facts of the case,” Jette said. She informed the Justice that the University is appealing the decision. That appeal has not been officially filed as of publication.
“We certainly believe the jury reached the correct verdict, and we are very gratified by the jury’s decision,” Fogelman said. If the University appeals, the plaintiff plans to respond and seek to have the verdict upheld, he explained.
“[Nelson-Bailey] was motivated by trying to reclaim her good name. Her reputation had been damaged. That was the primary driving force behind her bringing this case in the first place,” Fogelman said.