CEO Sues Connecticut State System, Wins Job Back

After Nicole Esposito was removed as CEO of Manchester Community College, she sued the Connecticut State system for gender discrimination. Now she’s won her job back.

August 22, 2022
Nicole Esposito, a white woman with chin-length dark hair and glasses.
Nicole Esposito is back as CEO of Manchester Community College after a legal victory.
(Manchester Community College)

Ousted last fall as CEO of Manchester Community College, Nicole Esposito subsequently sued the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system, alleging gender discrimination and a number of other issues, including violations of her First Amendment and equal protection rights.

Today she’s returning to her role—with a payout and other concessions from the CSCU system.

“I am eager to get back and continue providing the best possible experience for the students of Manchester Community College, as well as everyone else who is a part of the MCC community,” Esposito said in a statement provided through her legal counsel.

Esposito filed suit in August 2021 after facing alleged gender discrimination. The lawsuit alleges that her supervisor, Rob Steinmetz, threatened her job when she complained about his behavior and that officials pressured her to resign when she asked them to intervene in the matter. The lawsuit charges that Esposito was removed without cause.

Now CSCU must pay Esposito $775,000—a mix of back pay, compensatory damages and attorney’s fees—and provide training for executives and managers on discrimination and retaliation, whistle-blower protections, and employee free speech rights. The settlement also bars Esposito’s former supervisor—the man accused of sexist behavior toward her and other women—from holding any managerial power over her.

The defendants in the case did not admit to any wrongdoing.

The Lawsuit

Esposito was hired as CEO—a president-like role—of Manchester Community College in July 2020. Though she had held various positions in higher education, it was her first executive job. Her run was interrupted after she clashed with Steinmetz, who was the Capital Region East president, a now-discontinued role in the community college system.

Esposito claimed in her lawsuit that Steinmetz began making sexist statements early on, criticizing the tone of her voice and describing her as “off-putting.” Esposito said Steinmetz also made sexist comments about a highly qualified female job applicant, criticizing her for talking too much during an interview. When Esposito confronted him with allegations of sexism, Steinmetz reportedly threatened her job security, according to details in the lawsuit.

Contacted by email, Steinmetz did not provide a comment to Inside Higher Ed.

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Esposito’s lawsuit also stated that system officials took no action when they were informed of her supervisor’s behavior, allegedly telling her “to go back and work things out with Steinmetz.” According to the lawsuit, system officials not only failed to intervene but also pressured Esposito to resign.

With tensions still simmering, Esposito was told in June 2021—less than a year after she took the job— that her appointment as CEO of Manchester Community College would be discontinued. The lawsuit claims that Esposito was given no “justification or rationale” for the proposed termination.

Esposito also alleges that an outside law firm hired to conduct an independent investigation into Steinmetz’s alleged behavior was the same firm that represented the system in labor and employment issues, and that it excluded relevant information that her legal counsel provided.

Esposito was suspended and removed from her post in August 2021. Her lawsuit claims she was not granted proper due process, citing a delayed hearing related to her suspension. A hearing eventually took place in January, and her termination was upheld, which Esposito argues was partly because she had “expressed concerns to the [U.S.] Department of Education.”

Shortly after being removed from her post, Esposito hired a legal team, filing suit against CSCU. After roughly a year in limbo, the case was settled earlier this month, leading to Esposito’s return.

The Big Picture

As Esposito battled in court to keep her job, allies on campus rallied around her.

Angelo Messore, who teaches political science and economics at Manchester, said Esposito’s termination came as a surprise on the cusp of the new school year.

“She was removed abruptly. We were getting ready for the beginning of a new fall [2021] semester and suddenly she was informed that she was being removed,” Messore said.

Messore quickly organized and sent a petition to the Board of Regents opposing Esposito’s termination.

Patrick Sullivan, an English professor at Manchester Community College who wrote op-eds advocating for Esposito, said by email that her termination was “sudden, confusing, and shocking.” He added that Esposito had skillfully led the college through the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. Campus reaction to her termination consisted of “confusion, bafflement, and fear,” he said. (Sullivan also pointed out that Esposito won a woman of the year award from the American Association for Women in Community Colleges in April while still fighting for her job.)

Both faculty members suggested that Esposito had been asking hard questions about the consolidation of Connecticut’s community colleges, which also factored into her termination.

“This ouster was read by many as a chilling message: We are in charge. Get in line or bad things will happen,” Sullivan wrote. “We won’t stand for ‘insubordination’ (a word they liked to use a lot around that time for anyone with a difference of opinion or who spoke their mind).”

Now, with Esposito’s return, faculty members said they’re happy to have an advocate for Manchester Community College as consolidation looms for fall 2023.

“We feel that we finally have our president back, that we have someone to represent us and fight for us, someone who will help us to maintain our standing. Without a CEO, we had nobody to represent us at the system office and to voice our needs,” Messore said.

Both Messore and Sullivan were sharply critical of the consolidation process, which they see as forced and clumsy. They alleged that system administrators were bullying their way through it and expressed a need for greater accountability for system leadership extending to the very top.

“The way the system is set up now, more of these kinds of problems are inevitable,” Sullivan said. “Right now, there are no checks and balances and no legislative oversight. The governor appoints individuals to the Board of Regents, which has simply rubber-stamped everything the system office has wanted to do. Appointees know that the governor supports this merger and the people leading it. It’s a system designed to produce these kinds of unfortunate reckonings.”

The Fallout

The CSCU system did not provide a statement or make officials available to discuss Esposito’s lawsuit, instead directing Inside Higher Ed to an Aug. 12 announcement of staff changes, which included a brief mention of Esposito’s return and noted that Steinmetz had been moved from the regional president position to instead be executive vice president of college services and student affairs.

The CSCU system—and Steinmetz—have since been named in another lawsuit, filed in July, by a plaintiff alleging discrimination based on her age and physical limitations.

A CSCU official said that lawsuit is “a personnel matter that is currently under review.”

To outside legal observers, Esposito’s victory is somewhat uncommon.

Stephanie Hamm, who works in employment law as a partner at the law firm Thompson & Horton LLP, said by email that employment cases “are usually an uphill battle for the plaintiff because most employment laws are designed to make it difficult for plaintiffs to prevail.”

Hamm, who has represented both plaintiffs and defendants in employment cases, said it’s rare to see a lawsuit where an employee gets to keep their job and receives both back pay and compensatory damages, describing the legal outcome as “a big win for the plaintiff.”

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