CLARKSBURG – Former Salem International University vice president Debra Mertz claims her employers retaliated against her because she refused to help them run the school as a diploma mill.
In a Harrison County trial set to start Sept. 17, Mertz alleges that students who paid tuition up front received passing grades, degrees and diplomas whether or not they legitimately fulfilled the academic requirements.
Attorney Arthur Chmiel of Charleston charges that Mertz's superiors tried to intimidate her and force her to cooperate.
She seeks compensatory and punitive damages not only under employment law but also under consumer protection law.
Chmiel's suit portrays Mertz as a whistleblower trying to protect West Virginia from phony diplomas.
"Awarding students degrees based on payment of fees rather than on the quality of their work is a deceptive act or practice," Chmiel wrote.
He wrote that granting a degree solely for payment of a fee "defrauds West Virginia employers who might rely on the supposed worth of an employee's degree conferred by a West Virginia institution of higher learning."
Circuit Judge Thomas Bedell will condcut the trial.
According to Chmiel, Mertz started as interim director of the university's online division in 2003, at an annual pay rate of $42,000.
In a month, President Richard Ferrin appointed her director, at $55,000.
In January 2004, Ferrin appointed her vice president, at $75,000.
According to Chmiel, Ferrin cut her pay to $55,000 and then $45,000.
That June, according to Chmiel, Mertz injured her back on the job and claimed workers' compensation benefits.
That July, according to Chmiel, chief financial officer James Mayfield fired Mertz and told her he would defeat her workers comp claim.
At the same time, according to Chmiel, Mayfield offered her a contract to teach for four months.
"Mertz incurred loss of income while employed at SIU and has had to accept employment at the reduced rate of $28,988," Chmiel wrote.
Mertz also claims sexual discrimination, reprisal and retaliation under the West Virginia human rights act.
She claims discrimination based on her workers' comp claim. She claims emotional distress.
Her claim as a whistleblower for West Virginia consumers alleges that university owner Informatics Holdings Limited of Singapore intentionally failed to enforce academic standards.
"IHL made its money from SIU in selling SIU's online courses to foreign students, and getting a great deal of this money paid by the students for their degree programs, not just individual courses, up front," Chmiel wrote. "Thus, if those students were caught cheating or plagiarizing, which in fact some were, IHL did not want these students to receive failing grades or IHL would have to refund their money.
"The fact the students were overseas is not material to this inquiry."
He wrote that there is strong public interest in preventing such conduct because of its effect on other institutions competing for students.