Treasurer files

Kristin Gustafson

Although she has kept her title, University treasurer Georgina Stephens wants her responsibilities back.
So Stephens, who is also the associate vice president of treasury operations, filed a lawsuit Monday to try to make that happen.
Stephens’ motions, filed Monday in the Minnesota Court of Appeals, request reinstatement and judicial review of the University’s reassignment of her duties.
The legal action comes after the University investigated Stephens after learning of her personal bankruptcy and other lawsuits. After placing her on administrative leave for five weeks, the University notified Stephens on Nov. 20 that she would be assigned to nonfinancial duties.
“We’re trying as best as we can to make her whole, to put her back into her position,” Karl Oliver, Stephens’ attorney, said Monday. “She loved her job.”
So Stephens and Oliver have requested a Minnesota appellate court to review what they term “numerous errors of law.”
The suit, which names University President Mark Yudof, the Board of Regents and the University, argues that the University wrongfully terminated Stephens based on her bankruptcy status.
Stephens filed for bankruptcy in August 1998.
“This was the result of 10 years of litigation … and one catastrophic event in Stephens’ personal life that cut her family’s cash flow in half,” Oliver wrote in one court document.
Under federal law, public employees cannot be discriminated against if they file for bankruptcy.
“Filing bankruptcy, in part, is about getting a fresh start,” Oliver said. “Because there is a general uneasiness about people who have filed for bankruptcy … they needed that statute.”
But University officials counter Stephens’ charge.
“The simple fact that Georgina Stephens has filed a bankruptcy petition is in no way the cause of any change in her employment with the University,” said Mark Rotenberg, the University’s general counsel. “There are certain misstatements and improprieties … involving Ms. Stephens that have resulted in the University concluding that she needs to be reassigned different work.”
In 1996, a Ramsey County judge found one of the documents Stephens allegedly used in a 1989 real estate transaction to be “a fake and a sham.”
But just because some of the documents that the University reviewed were bankruptcy documents didn’t mean the University discriminated on the basis of bankruptcy status, Rotenberg said.
He argued that one of Stephens’ own examples showed the University does not discriminate against employees who have filed for bankruptcy.
In court documents, Stephens cited a case in which one of her employees filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy and was later promoted. Like Stephens, the employee also managed University finances.
But while Stephens is black, that University employee is white.
This employee and other white University employees who also filed for bankruptcy “were not subject to a campaign of vilification and ridicule; their desks, offices, personal effects and e-mail were not searched, their functions were not ‘reassigned’ nor were their contracts not renewed,” according to Stephens’ court documents.
The employee, who has worked at the University for more than 20 years, refused to comment about the case.
A year before being reassigned, Stephens reported to Yudof “instances of systemic discrimination against her and other people of color in the University,” according to the court documents.
In her suit, Stephens argues the University retaliated with the administrative leave, violating a Minnesota whistleblower law and her free-speech rights.
But Rotenberg countered Stephens’ charges of racism.
“None of the charges she’s made against the University have any merit,” he said. “In no way has the University discriminated against her on the basis of race.”
Stephens also claimed Yudof and other top University officials violated her privacy rights by speaking to the media and University employees about her situation.
“The University intentionally, maliciously and negligently provided private facts about Stephens’ administrative leave,” according to the documents.
Stephens also argued that she was defamed.
“University employees, agents or representatives published slanderous and damaging oral arguments concerning Stephens to various reporters and others which were false,” the court documents state.
These remarks and subsequent University action also hurt Stephens’ career, Oliver argued.
A Northwestern Memorial Hospital job offer was rescinded three days after Stephens’ administrative leave was made public.
“I guess she was very upset with the way that she was being investigated and treated and … thought it’d be prudent to have a plan B, so to speak,” Oliver said.
The University didn’t allow her to have input before actions were taken against her, Oliver and Stephens argued.
But Rotenberg said Stephens had a chance to talk with Yudof and a University attorney.
“There were no promises broken,” Rotenberg said. “I was in touch with her lawyer as recently as the last six hours. … He never even suggested to me he was sending this to the University. And so if we are going to talk about miscommunication, it goes both ways.
“It is very unfortunate that she has chosen to litigate at this time,” Rotenberg added.
But Oliver said the University needed to look at the bigger picture.
“When this situation came about in October, where was the University’s moral compass?” Oliver said. “Were they doing the right thing by subjecting her to this invasive investigation and basically giving the appearance that she had done something wrong; because she filed for bankruptcy, she was not fit to be treasurer and associate vice president of the University.”
The University expects to formally respond to Stephens’ legal action within the next few days, Rotenberg said.
— Tammy J. Oseid contributed to this article.
Kristin Gustafson covers University administration and welcomes comments at [email protected] She can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3211.