Field trip results in wrongful discharge suit against West Virginia State

By Lawrence Smith | Mar 15, 2013

CHARLESTON – A Nitro woman claims showing compassion for students’ health needs during a field trip last summer got her fired from a local university.

CHARLESTON – A Nitro woman claims showing compassion for students’ health needs during a field trip last summer got her fired from a local university.

West Virginia State University is named as a defendant in wrongful discharge suit filed by LaTonya Fuller. In her complaint filed March 6 in Kanawha Circuit Court, Fuller, 33, alleges she was fired from her job with State’s Upward Bound program in July in retaliation for accusing Barbara Cary, the program’s director, of being insensitive toward students’ well-being while visiting Washington, D.C.

According to the suit, Fuller was one of 14 adults who accompanied 120 students to D.C. on June 29. The suit does not specify her job title or when she began working for Upward Bound.

Funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Upward Bound is a program designed to provide high school students, especially those in rural areas, from families who have not traditionally attended college an opportunity to do so.

After leaving Institute at 1 a.m. and after an all all-night bus ride, the students and chaperones began the D.C. tour “without opportunity to shower, bathe or sleep,” the suit says.

Fuller alleges Cary “directed the students and chaperones to walk great distances, without access to water in extreme heat conditions approaching, if not exceeding, 100 degrees.”

After the tour was complete, the students and chaperones loaded onto the buses and departed for an unspecified restaurant for dinner, the suit says. When a student on her bus began having an asthma attack, Fuller says she asked the driver to pull over.

According to the suit, partially as a result of a malfunctioning air conditioner, students on Fuller’s bus exited after it pulled over. Cary, who was on another bus with another chaperone, says she “put the asthmatic student and other ill students onto one of the other buses with air conditioning.”

Shortly after the remaining students boarded and began heading to the restaurant, Fuller says an unspecified number “voiced their health and safety concerns to her” and became ill when she, again, instructed the driver to pull over. The students who departed the bus where picked up by another bus and taken to the restaurant, the suit says.

Upon arrival, Fuller alleges she and the students “were approached aggressively by Ms. Cary.” After she approached, Fuller says Cary asked for each of their names and instructed them to join the rest of the group.

According to the suit, after the students arrived inside, Cary “began reprimanding the entire group for their behaviors and quoting prices for the events they were attending.” This, Fuller says, caused great “embarrassment and humiliation” for not only the students, but also herself.

As a result of Cary’s upbraiding, Fuller says she exited the restaurant. When she did, she says she was approached by a student whose father wanted to speak with her.

According to Fuller, the father said due to a seafood allergy, under no circumstances was the student to enter the restaurant. The man told Fuller his daughter’s allergy was previously disclosed to Cary, the suit says.

While she remained with her outside the restaurant, Fuller says she gave money to another chaperone to buy the student something to eat from another restaurant. This displeased Cary who, according to Fuller, ridiculed both she and the student “for their decision-making causing [them] great embarrassment and humiliation.”

As a result of her “volatile and hostile” behavior, Fuller says she walked away from Cary.

Shortly thereafter, Fuller says via text she voiced her displeasure of how Cary “was handling the safety of the students,” and she was leaving the trip.

After going to the bus to collect her belongings, she says she sent another text to Cary relaying a message from the bus driver the air conditioner was being repaired.

Though the complaint does not specify how she arrived back in West Virginia, Fuller says on July 2she notified R. Charles Byers, State’s provost and vice president for academic affairs, in writing about what happened during the D.C. trip. That same day, Fuller says she was placed on paid leave “pending an investigation.”

According to the suit, two weeks later Fuller was notified by Barbara Rowell, State’s human resources director, of her immediate termination for “gross misconduct.” A grievance she filed challenging the termination, Fuller says, proved to be “to no avail.”

In her suit, Fuller avers her termination was in direct “retaliation for reporting the hostile work environment and Ms. Cary’s lack of attention to the students’ safety.” The loss of her job, Fuller says, has resulted in, among other things, “emotional distress, aggravation, annoyance and inconvenience.”

Fuller seeks unspecified damages and attorneys fees. She is represented by Charleston attorney Scott H. Kaminski.

The case is assigned to Judge Jennifer Bailey.

Kanawha Circuit Court, case number 13-C-454

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