Former Emporia State University employee not happy with $64K ruling for discrimination

By: and - August 27, 2020 4:01 pm
Angelica Hale says she plans to ask a federal judge to reconsider his decision to award her just nine months worth of back pay. She left Emporia State University in July 2015, citing a hostile work environment after she complained about the university's handling of a racial slur. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Angelica Hale says she plans to ask a federal judge to reconsider his decision to award her just nine months worth of back pay. She left Emporia State University in July 2015, citing a hostile work environment after she complained about the university’s handling of a racial slur. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — A federal judge has ordered Emporia State University to pay $64,000 to a former employee who faced retaliation after reporting a racist slur in 2015.

Angelica Hale, 58, had argued for at least $500,000 to cover wages and benefits she would have earned if she had been allowed to stay at the university until she retired. She said she was disappointed in the judge’s decision and plans to file a motion to reconsider.

The ruling Wednesday by U.S. District Judge Daniel Crabtree follows a five-year struggle by Angelica and her husband, Melvin, to have their complaints taken seriously. An event next month in Emporia will commemorate the couple’s march for justice.

Angelica Hale kneels outside the federal courthouse after a hearing in June in Topeka. She said Emporia State University has been “on our necks for five years.” (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

The Hales have been jobless and homeless, sometimes living in their car, for much of the past four years. They currently are staying with an aunt in Las Vegas.

Melvin said “ESU is laughing today and probably partying” because of Crabtree’s ruling.

“They’re not going to think twice,” he said. “They’re going to laugh and say, ‘We had them.’ And they’re probably going to call us the N word and laugh like crazy.”

Gwen Larson, a spokeswoman for ESU, said the university was studying the judgment and exploring options.

“Emporia State is committed to creating a welcoming environment for all students, faculty and staff,” Larson said.

Crabtree last year ruled the university improperly punished Angelica under federal anti-discrimination law. In a separate case, a jury found the university was justified in canceling Melvin’s contract as an assistant professor.

Angelica was the administrative assistant to the dean of ESU’s School of Library and Information Management, and worked in an exclusive office where few had access. Someone wrote “niggaz” on a notebook in her office, and the couple immediately informed the dean. University officials initially refused to consider the incident to be significant, and campus police declined to investigate.

The couple complained publicly about the university, which led to an internal review by an assistant director of human resources that found no wrongdoing.

Emporia State University attorney Kevin Johnson, left, leaves the federal courthouse in Topeka after a hearing in June. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

In public statements, the university’s attorney, Kevin Johnson, falsely said the slur had been written in a commons area and that it was a fluke the Hales had even learned about it. He asserted that hate crimes don’t exist under Kansas law.

Angelica quit in July 2015, citing a hostile work environment.

Crabtree determined Angelica was entitled to just nine months of wages, retirement benefits and tuition assistance, worth $48,312.03, plus $15,991.28 in interest. The judge said Angelica frequently changed jobs before arriving at ESU and would have been unlikely to stay after her husband’s contract expired in May 2016.

Angelica said the judge’s conclusion was sexist and offensive. The couple owned a house in Emporia, she said, and told the Associated Press in 2015 they intended to stay in the community to address negative attitudes toward minorities.

“That’s personal. That’s a bias,” she said. “You’re going to end it based on the male’s, the head of the household’s, end date? There’s a problem with that.”

Melvin said the court’s ruling sends a chilling message to anyone who would report discrimination in Kansas. The couple lost its vehicles and a house after being cut off from income.

“What this is really saying is, ‘Black lives don’t mean a damn.’ I mean, let’s just be frank about it,” Melvin said.

Supporters marched with Melvin and Angelica Hale in 2015 in Emporia. An upcoming event will commemorate the march. (Submitted to Kansas Reflector)

Jay Vehige, of Emporia Community Action, has organized events for Sept. 15 to commemorate a march led by the Hales five years ago. He said issues of systemic racism haven’t been addressed.

The university, which in recent years has defined limited spaces where public demonstrations can be held, blocked Vehige from planning events on campus. Instead, supporters will march to the library, where speeches will be delivered.

“We hope through our continued advocacy to one day be able to say and mean that ESU and the greater Emporia community now respects diversity, embraces it, and is united in our pursuit of justice, equity and liberation for all peoples,” Vehige said.

The Hales are scheduled to speak at the event via video conference.

Angelica attended a court hearing in June in Topeka, and took note of the rising awareness for institutional racism that was playing out in public protests across the country. She kneeled in front of the federal courthouse, where the Brown v. Board desegregation case was argued 56 years ago.

“This has been a long time coming,” she said. “That’s why I took a knee right now, because they were on our necks for five years. They had opportunities to reason with us and do the right thing and they did not do it.”

This story has been corrected to say an assistant director of human resources conducted the university’s internal review.

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the 2021 and 2022 Kansas Press Association’s journalist of the year. He has written award-winning news stories about the instability of the Kansas foster care system, misconduct by government officials, sexual abuse, technology, education, and the Legislature. He previously spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He is a lifelong Kansan.

Pilar Pedraza
Pilar Pedraza

Pilar Pedraza sees journalism as a public service, providing viewers with the information they need to lead their best lives. This is part of what led her into political reporting early on. She cut her political reporting teeth on the First in the Nation Caucuses in Iowa in the 90s. She won multiple awards for her election coverage in Des Moines. She's spent much of the last decade covering the latest developments in Kansas politics. In between elections she's covered everything from the Oklahoma City Bombing, the OJ Simpson Civil Trial, and the birth of the McCaughey Septuplets to the Capture of BTK and the Flight Safety Crash at Eisenhower Airport. With two decades of experience in broadcast news, Pilar has done just about every job there is in TV news. Her favorite, to date, is reporting and anchoring, especially covering politics and breaking news. She grew up in newspaper newsrooms in Michigan and Oklahoma, where her mother was a reporter, editor, and columnist and where she learned how to work with her local community. Pilar graduated from Iowa State University with a BA in Journalism and Spanish in 1996 and got her MA in History with an emphasis in 20th century politics at Pittsburg State University in 2019. She is fluent in multiple languages. In her scant free time, Pilar likes to hang out with her husband of 20+ years and their son, a recent graduate of Maize High School. She enjoys reading, quilting, cross stitching and petting her dog and three cats.