State News

Judge orders mediation in media lawsuit over fired UNC staffers

Posted December 12, 2014 4:01 a.m. EST
Updated December 12, 2014 6:42 p.m. EST

— A Superior Court judge on Friday ordered a group of North Carolina news organizations and the state's flagship public university to mediate their dispute over records related to the school's long-running academic fraud scandal.

The two sides are battling because the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill hasn't disclosed the names of the four campus employees fired and five others who were disciplined for their roles in a scheme allowing fake classes and generous grades over nearly two decades.

Judge Donald Stephens rejected the university's motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

Former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein released a 131-page report on Oct. 22 that showed academic advisers steered student-athletes for 18 years toward classes that never met and required only a short paper to pass.

Chancellor Carol Folt called the no-show classes "an inexcusable betrayal," but she declined to respond to repeated inquiries about who was punished and how.

"We don't talk about personnel issues and give anybody's name," she said in October. "We honor and hold very dear our processes for fairness and privacy."

North Carolina's public records law requires state agencies, including public universities, to make employee records available. That includes records regarding their dismissal, suspension or demotion for disciplinary reasons.

Kimberly Potter, a special deputy attorney general representing the university, said such changes in employment aren't final – and shouldn't be publicly disclosed – until all grievance hearings have been held and all appeals exhausted.

Hugh Stevens, a lawyer for the 10 media companies, including Capitol Broadcasting Co., the parent of WRAL News, countered that numerous state employees have been publicly identified immediately after they were fired, demoted or suspended, even if they were later reinstated.

"I don't see anything in (state law) that talks about finality; it talks about actions," Stevens said. "When the chancellor fires somebody, then they've been dismissed."

Judge Stephens questioned how Folt could announce that some employees were fired or disciplined and then also argue that the moves aren't final and the employee are entitled to due process before their names are released.

"I would believe that, if the agency makes that decision and makes that public statement, then in the minds of the agency, at least, that's the final decision with regard to termination (or) discipline," the judge said. "Otherwise, why in the world would you make such a public statement?"

Still, Stephens said, the law allows for such matters to be mediated, so he wasn't ready to rule in the case until UNC-Chapel Hill and the media organizations went through that process.

Both sides claimed victory in the ruling.

"The university has an important responsibility to protect the privacy rights of employees while balancing our obligation to operate transparently as a public institution. We appreciate Judge Stephens’ consideration of these issues, and we will enter into mediation about the employee personnel records," Rick White, associate vice chancellor for communications and public affairs, said in a statement.

"We are pleased that Judge Stephens recognized the importance of this case and the records at issue in the overall context of the UNC story," media lawyer Mike Tadych said in an email. "We appreciate the court's denial of the university's motions to dismiss and his ordering the entire matter to mediation in the hopes that it can be concluded via productive discussions."