W.Va. State Research Corp. named in another termination suit

By Lawrence Smith | Sep 6, 2011

CHARLESTON – The research division of West Virginia State University once again is named in a wrongful termination suit.

Marie Estep filed suit against the West Virginia State University Research and Development Corporation on Aug. 24 in Kanawha Circuit Court. In her complaint, Estep, 51, of Charleston alleges WVSURDC, instead of allowing her to take unpaid leave pursuant to federal law following disclosure of an unexplained illness, used her disability as a reason to fire her.

Two years ago, WVSURDC settled a wrongful termination suit filed by Katara Sowell who alleged higher-ups cut funding for her position as means to get rid of her after she complained about improper and unprofessional behavior of two of her supervisors.

Strict interpretation of law

According to her compliant, Estep began work at WVSURDC on July 15, 2007. Her duties included writing grants, and developing programs.

She worked without incident until Jan. 11, 2010. That is when she "began suffering shortness of breath, coughing, a chest tightness and ear pain."

Because the illness and pain "substantially limited her in the major life activities" such as "walking, hearing and breathing," Estep became disabled. After she sought medical treatment, Estep was instructed not to return to work.

Shortly thereafter, Estep applied to take leave under the Family Medical Leave Act. WVSURDC asserted its right under FMLA to require certification from Estep's health care provider she was experiencing a serious health condition.

According to her suit, WVSURDC sent the certification papers to her on Feb. 4. However, due to her condition she was unable to retrieve them from her mailbox until the next visit with her physician on Feb. 11.

It was on that day Estep's physician, Michele Roach, as physician's assistant, signed the certification records. However, she did not immediately return them to WVSURDC.

Three days later, Estep fell and broke her foot. According to her suit, Roach instructed her to keep her foot elevated for the next two to three days.

Eventually, Roach faxed the certification paperwork to WVSURDC on Tuesday, Feb. 23. In a letter dated that same day, WVSURDC notified Estep her employment was being terminated.

The letter stated the reason was the failure to return the certification paperwork within 15 calendar days of submitting it to her. However, in her suit, Estep maintains the paperwork can be accepted past the 15-day deadline if "it is not practicable under the particular circumstances to do so despite the employee's diligent, good faith efforts."

Since both she and Roach did make a good faith effort to submit the certification paperwork in light of her foot injury, and that she was employed for at least 12 months before submitting her leave request, Estep maintains she's entitled to take leave under FMLA, and remain employed with WVSURDC upon her return. Because WVSRDC applied a strict interpretation of the 15-day rule for receiving the certification paperwork, Estep says she not only lost her job, but also has incurred "mental distress, humiliation, anxiety, embarrassment, depression, aggravation, annoyance, and inconvience."

Estep seeks unspecified damages, including reinstatement, front and back pay, court costs, attorney fees and interest. She is represented by Shawn R. Romano, and Kathy A. Brown with the Charleston law firm of Romano and Associates.

The case is assigned to Judge James C. Stucky.

Other suit settled for $55K

In her suit filed in 2007, Sowell alleged she was forced out of her job as a human resources assistant after complaining to university officials, including President Hazo W. Carter Jr., about being the target of threats and intimidation by her two supervisors, Shelvy Campbell and Joseph Kusimo.

Specifically, she alleged Campbell, her first supervisor, would often verbally berate her for no reason, and had her perform errands unrelated to work. They included picking her son up from school, and helping out with the Chemical Valley Youth Football League where Campbell was president.

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.

Along with WVSURDC, Campbell and Kusimo were named as co-defendants in Sowell's suit. Though Campbell and Kusimo were eventually dismissed, Sowell settled her suit with WVSURDC in June 2009 for $55,000.

Kanawha Circuit Court case number 11-C-1459(Estep)

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