A former SUNY graduate student was awarded $601,000 this month after a federal jury decided faculty members attacked him academically as retribution for discrimination complaints he made.
The award for Carlos Bayon, a 49-year-old former State University of New York at Buffalo student, followed eight years of legal battles. Bayon, who graduated from SUNY-Buffalo with honors as an undergraduate, enrolled again as an anthropology graduate student in fall 1996. Experts say that the size of the award -- which will be appealed -- is extremely high for student litigation.
Bayon walks with a limp from chronic knee problems and a violent robbery years ago, and was recognized by SUNY-Buffalo as a disabled student. Bayon says he has trouble walking, sleeping, and sometimes concentrating for long periods. Because of his disabilities, Bayon argued in court filings, he needed extra time to finish certain assignments. Bayon did not get the time he felt he needed, and disputed low grades he received in spring 1997, alleging that he was discriminated against both because of his disabilities and because of his Puerto Rican ethnicity.
The discrimination claims were investigated by the Office for Civil Rights, and Bayon later filed a discrimination lawsuit. The investigation did not find evidence of discrimination, and the lawsuit was dismissed by Judge John Elfvin, the same judge who presided over the recently decided case.
But while the investigation was ongoing, in fall 1997, Bayon was still appealing the low grades and was said not to be in good academic standing because of them. Two professors sent a letter to the Financial Aid Office about Bayon’s academic standing, and, as a result, he was denied the financial aid he needed on top of a fellowship he had that paid tuition. Bayon then had a meeting with his advisor, Ann McElroy, an anthropology professor, where he asserts she told him that other professors in the department were “angry,” and “would make it difficult for him” unless he withdrew his discrimination complaints, according to court filings.
At the end of that semester Bayon had accumulated $1,000 in debt because of the lack of financial aid. That semester, Bayon received three A’s and an F. He disputed the failing grade, and it was dropped. Still, the lawsuit said, the F was considered by faculty members as part of Bayon’s academic standing. Bayon, unable to pay his debt, and still denied financial aid, was blocked from registering, and was forced out of the program.
Subsequently, Bayon was not allowed to enroll in other programs, because the university would not release his transcript. This time Bayon filed suit claiming the downward spiral was the result of retaliation by professors angered by the discrimination lawsuits. Bayon’s professors maintained in court that their assessment of Bayon was based on his academic performance, and not his legal actions. The jury found otherwise, and gave Bayon the hefty award.
“The evidence demonstrated that even though the ‘F’ was taken off his transcript, it was considered [by faculty members assessing Bayon],” said Robert Scumaci, Bayon’s lawyer, who was assigned by the court to work the case . Scumaci thinks one of the reasons the jury award was so high was that he “asked them to consider that [Bayon] has been dealing with this for eight years.”
The university declined to comment because it has already appealed the verdict and the award.
“It is not uncommon to have a [large award] when you have a sympathetic plaintiff getting his or her case to a jury who wants to make him or her whole,” said Sheldon Steinbach, general counsel for the American Council on Education. Steinbach said that retaliation claims are “almost always in an employment context,” and he could not think of any other academic retaliation suits with such large financial awards. He doubts if this case will precipitate others like it. “This is unique and possibly unprecedented. I don’t think this will have any particular impact. The circumstances are so unique, that it’s unlikely to have precedential value.”
But Kathleen Sims, the head of the Graduate Student Employees Union for SUNY just heard about the case, and plans to consider it carefully, and to keep a close eye on the appeal. “I think this is a very interesting thing,” she said, “because retaliation is something graduate students fear all the time. For grad students, our low position on the totem pole helps us be and feel as vulnerable as we are.”
Bayon might not want to count his money yet, though. “The amount of the award will be a significant issue in the appeal,” Scumaci said. Steinbach added that, though he does not know of a case exactly like this, in similar cases with very large awards, “if the school will appeal, they will usually win.”