WVSU Research Corp. settles wrongful termination suit for $55K

By Lawrence Smith | Sep 2, 2011

CHARLESTON – A lawsuit between the research arm of West Virginia State University and a former employee has been settled.

The wrongful termination suit Katara Sowell filed against the West Virginia State University Research and Development Corporation came to a conclusion in June 2009. According to the terms of the settlement, which was denied by Assistant Attorney General Jake Wegman, but provided by WVSURDC's private attorney Tom Kleeh in response to a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by The West Virginia Record, WVSURDC agreed to pay Sowell $55,000.

Of that amount, Sowell kept $50,000, and the remainder went to her attorney, Scott Kaminski. As part of the settlement, Sowell, who worked as a human resources assistant, agreed to never seek employment again with WVSURDC and admit acceptance of the payout was not an admission of guilt by WVSURDC to the allegations raised in her suit.

The agreement was signed by Sowell on May 19, 2009, followed by Brunetta Dillard, WVSURDC's executive director. The settlement became final on June 9 when retired Cabell Circuit Judge L.D. Egnor granted a motion to dismiss the case.

Egnor was assigned by the state Supreme Court to handle the docket of Kanawha Circuit Judge Paul Zakaib who had taken a short medical leave at the time. Records show Zakaib was assigned the case in March 2009 after Judge Jennifer Bailey recused herself citing a potential conflict with Joseph Kusimo being listed a co-defendant in the case while his daughter, Olubunmi, was the assistant prosecutor assigned to her court.

Both Kusimo and Shelvy Campbell, who Sowell named as co-defendants in her suit, were dismissed following a pre-trial hearing. In her suit, Sowell alleged during her six months with WVSURDC she was threatened and intimidated by them.

Specifically, she alleged Campbell would often verbally berate her for no reason, and had her perform errands unrelated to work. After she transferred to work with him, Sowell alleged Kusimo made her work extra hours without pay for the NASA program he oversaw.

When she expressed her concerns about working the extra hours without pay, Sowell maintains Kusimo told her he would not tolerate disrespect and made chopping motions with his hands saying he had a black belt.

Despite providing the settlement, Kleeh declined to provide additional information The Record requested such as the fees both he and his co-counsel, J.A. Curia, earned in defending WVSURDC. However, according to the state Board of Risk and Insurance Management, they collected $48,303.40.

Also, WVSURDC incurred an additional $1,758.10 in legal expenses, and the university paid a $2,500 deductible in defense of Sowell's suit.

Kanawha Circuit Court case number 07-C-2376

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