Trial date set in suit against W.Va. State research corp.

By Lawrence Smith | Jun 20, 2008


East Hall, located on the campus of West Virginia State University in Institute, is the home of WVSU's Research and Development Corporation. Katara Sowell, a former RDC employee, filed a lawsuit against not only the RDC, but also its human resources director Shelvy Campbell and Joseph Kusimo, who works for WVSU's NASA program, for creating a hostile work environment during her employment there. The case is slated for trial in April 2009. (Photo by Lawrence J. Smith)

CHARLESTON – After being bounced between state and federal courts, a lawsuit filed by a former employee of the research division of West Virginia State University is slated for trial in the spring.

On June 11, a scheduling conference was held in Kanawha Circuit Court in the case of Katara Sowell v. West Virginia State University Research and Development Corporation. In November, Sowell brought suit against the Corporation alleging both its human resources director, Shelvy Campbell, and A. Joseph Kusimo, director of the university's NASA program, created a hostile work environment during her six months there.

Sowell's suit, court records show, also alleges the Corporation retaliated against her after she addressed her concerns to higher ups including university President Hazo W. Carter Jr., who is also president of the Corporation's board of directors. She claims that shortly thereafter her job was cut because of "a lack of funding"
On March 24, the case was transferred to U. S. District Court because of federal wage and hour issues Sowell raised. However, her attorney, Scott Kaminski, asked the case be remanded back to state court because the "Plaintiff's perceived pursuit of a federal claim was the sole basis for federal jurisdiction in this matter."

Court records show Judge Joseph Goodwin granted Kaminski's motion on May 23.

In her scheduling order, Kanawha Circuit Judge Jennifer Bailey Walker set Jan. 9, 2009 for the completion of discovery. Should the parties fail to mediate the dispute before the pretrial conference on April 9, 2009, then trial will begin 11 days later at 9 a.m

A personal lackey

According to her complaint and suit, Sowell says the Corporation hired her on Feb. 1, 2007 as a human resources assistant. Campbell was her immediate supervisor.

Though court records do not specific a date, Sowell maintains shortly after she was hired "Campbell began to create a hostile work environment for the Plaintiff." Campbell denigrated Sowell by not only cursing and swearing at her, but also threatening "on at least one occasion to 'beat up' the Plaintiff."

Also, Sowell alleges that she served as Campbell's personal lackey. According to court records, in addition to having her pick her son up from school, Campbell made Sowell to perform activities for the Chemical Valley Youth Football League, of which Campbell was president.

Three months later, Sowell alleges she "was sent to work for Defendant Kusimo" in which she "was assigned to coordinate the N.A.S.A. summer program at West Virginia State University." Though she was never given any formal notice as to what she was to do for Kusimo, Sowell claims he "requested Plaintiff to teach classes after hours, and advised her that she would neither be paid nor would she receive compensatory time."

When Sowell informed Kusimo on July 10 she was no longer going to work for him until she was properly compensated, Kusimo said he "would not tolerate any disrespect," accused Sowell of not being "a team player" and began making chopping motions at her claiming he was a "black belt."

About a week later, after voicing her concerns to Kusimo's supervisor, who is unnamed in the suit, Sowell alleges "Defendant Kusimo sought to personally attack Plaintiff's alleged poor performance through a series of subjective findings. All of Plaintiff's prior evaluations had been unremarkable."

Something thereafter, court records show, Sowell "complained about the evaluation and specifically advised Defendant Kusimo's supervisor, as well as West Virginia State University President Hazo W. Carter, or the retaliatory nature of Defendant Kusimo's actions as evidenced in his evaluation of the Plaintiff."

Though court records do not specify a date, Sowell alleges after complaining about Kusimo's evaluation, her "position was eliminated based upon a claimed 'lack of funding' ... and has been refilled by a lesser qualified candidate."

In its reply dated Dec. 17, filed with the assistance of Thomas S. Kleeh and J.A. Curia III, with the Charleston law firm of Steptoe and Johnson, the Corporation "admits the plaintiff's position was eliminated because of a loss of funding." However, they maintain Sowell's "claims are barred in whole or in part by applicable statute of limitations" and she "has failed to mitigate her alleged damages, if any."'

In her answer to the first set of interrogatories Kleeh and Curia sent to her, Sowell says she's mitigated her damages by taking "periodic substitute teaching assignments" and returning "to school full-time in January 2008 at Marshall University." Sowell lives on Faculty Row on the WVSU campus with her husband, Tryreno, who is State's director of admissions.

Also in her answer, Sowell afixed a dollar amount to her job loss. In addition to not being able to earn the $30,000 the position paid, Sowell alleges she has incurred dental expenses of $1,141 "for treatment which I believe is related to the stress of dealing with the events set forth in my complaint."

Kanawha Circuit Court Case No. 07-C-2376

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