Closing arguments heard in gender-equity suit

by Kamariea Forcier

More than 50 people packed into U.S. District Judge David Doty’s courtroom Thursday to hear closing remarks in a gender discrimination case filed against the University by two former professors.
Doty’s courtroom was strongly divided. On one side of the courtroom sat several employees of the College of Veterinary Medicine who came to show their support for Dean David Thawley, who the plaintiffs claim discriminated against them.
On the other side, supporters of the plaintiffs, Dr. Patricia Olson and Dr. Shirley Johnston, including college faculty members, sat quietly watching the drama.
Olson and Johnston have argued in court for the past three weeks that the University discriminated against them in 1992 when Thawley demoted Johnston and fired Olson. These actions came after Olson filed a sexual discrimination complaint with the University because she was not hired as the chair of the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences.
Attorneys on both sides argued the case was a simple one. Olson and Johnston’s lawyers argued that the case was a matter of common sense: the plaintiffs had too many negative experiences to be a coincidence. The University’s attorney claimed the case was simply a matter of wrongly strung-together conclusions.
When Lorie Gildea, the University’s attorney, took her place in front of the jury, she had a tone of authority in her voice.
“Simply stated,” Gildea said, “the plaintiffs have the burden of proof, and they haven’t met it.”
While making circular motions with her hands as if she were searching for a word, Gildea accused the plaintiff’s attorneys of diverting the issues away from the subject of sex discrimination.
“They’ve been sending up smoke signals, hoping to make us believe there’s a fire where there is none,” Gildea said.
“The simple fact is that Patricia Olson didn’t get the job because she wasn’t the most qualified,” she said.
When Pat Connor, attorney for the plaintiffs, stood in front of the jury, his appeal was different.
“This is a landmark case for women who would be leaders at the University,” he said.
“This is a simple case about a level playing field,” he said, restating points he made at the beginning of the case. “These women didn’t hit a glass ceiling, they hit a cement wall.”
Connor, during his statements, accused the University of trying to hide facts from the jury.
“Why didn’t the University call Thawley to the stand as a witness?” he asked, pointing to Thawley who sat at a table 5 feet away.
“What were they trying to hide?” he said with a look of concern.
Connor, asking the jurors to use common sense, urged them to decide the outcome of the case in favor of the plaintiffs.
“You can do something today. You can break that cement ceiling,” he said.
According to testimony during the past three weeks, Olson was a top candidate for a job as chair in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences during 1991 and 1992.
Connor and Eric Satre, attorneys for the plaintiffs, tried to prove that Olson was not chosen for the job because she is a woman.
Olson filed a complaint with the University’s office of equal opportunity in February 1992. She testified that she told Johnston about the complaint and asked for support.
At the time, Johnston was a part-time associate dean, as well as a professor in the department. She was also Olson’s boss.
Five days after Olson filed her complaint, Johnston received her first written warning from Thawley. The plaintiff’s attorneys argued the negative memo stems from the complaint filed by Olson.
After several letter exchanges, Johnston’s contract as associate dean was not renewed. She claims she was demoted in retaliation for supporting Olson. Olson was fired from the University when Johnston was demoted.