A federal appeals court on Tuesday upheld a lower court's ruling that awarded three former female employees at Alabama State University about $1 million for discrimination and retaliation by their supervisors there. The ruling by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit upheld a 2012 federal jury verdict holding Alabama State accountable for the behavior of John Knight, a former special assistant to the president and interim president, and LaVonette Bartley, who worked for Knight. (Knight is also a member of the Alabama House of Representatives.) The appeals panel supported the lower court's findings that Knight and Bartley regularly called the three employees "niggers" (both of the supervisors and two of the three plaintiffs were African-American -- the third was of mixed race) and sometimes engaged in sexual harassment, verbal and physical -- and that university officials failed to stop or respond to the harassment. "[W]e are unnerved by the apparent acquiescence to, if not outright condoning of, the abusive work environment created by its high-level employees," the 11th Circuit panel said. "Such conduct simply has no place in a work environment, especially at a publicly funded university."
Alabama State's president emeritus, William H. Harris, said in a statement Tuesday that the university "vehemently" disagrees with the court's ruling and denies that it discriminated. But "the court has spoken," Harris said, and "I want the public to be assured we have taken and continue to take seriously any allegation of discrimination. We will address appropriately any allegation of discrimination lodged against any person at this university."