Elkview attorney sues Marshall over denial of Master’s degree

Updated 4 years ago

By Lawrence J. Smith

CHARLESTON - A Kanawha County attorney alleges Marshall University denied her an opportunity to begin a new career as a teacher because of her sexual orientation.

MU’s Board of Governors, and five professors are named as co-defendants in a seven-count civil rights suit filed by Lisa Marie Kerr.  In her 24-page complaint filed on March 14 in U.S. District Court, Kerr, 52, and an Elkview resident, alleges MU denied her the necessary credit hours to complete her Master’s degree last Fall on the pretext of academic dishonesty when in reality those teaching her were fearful of a gay teacher.

According to her complaint, Kerr was pursing a Master’s of Arts in teaching through MU’s graduate college in South Charleston.  Her final semester consisted of student teaching.

Going into it, Kerr avers she had a 3.83 GPA, and a score of both 93, and 99 percent on two teaching examinations.  Also, as late as October, she maintains that she “never received a single negative evaluation of her academic or professional performance.”


It was not until midway through the semester, Kerr alleges, that the friction began with her advisers.  Specifically, she maintains that both Judith Southard, supervisor for the student teaching program, and Sandra Bailey, the program’s coordinator, “stonewalled” her repeated requests for “academic or professional support” on how to deal with suspected unprofessional conduct of Gene Brent Kuhn, her supervising teacher.


According to her complaint, Kerr says as a result of his “frequent absence,” Kuhn caused her to be a de facto unpaid substitute teacher at Scott High School in Boone County.  When he was in class, Kerr alleges Kuhn “inflat[ed] the students [sic] grades so substantially that it amounted to a ‘free pass’ not to do the work [she] assigned.”


As a result, Kerr says on Nov. 19 she sent an e-mail message to Southard, and Bailey that, pending their approval, she would “suspend further interaction” with Kuhn.  In her message, Kerr stated it was her understanding “she had fully satisfied the requirements for student teaching.”


The next day, Kerr says she received a message from Bailey scheduling a Dec. 5 meeting.


After arriving at the meeting, Kerr says she was informed by Bailey, and Teresa Eagle, dean of the College of Education, that MU was denying her credits for the Fall semester, and, as a result, would not be awarding her an Master’s in teaching.  According to the suit, the reason was due to “ ‘statements provided by Southard and Kuhn.’”


After Bailey provided her a copy of Kuhn’s statements to Southard, Kerr says she “immediately found several assertions that were false and defamatory.”  Attempts to contradict them were unsuccessful, Kerr says, as both Bailey, and Eagle cut her off in mid-sentence, and maintained the allegations were “dispositive against [her] regardless of evidence to the contrary.”


In her complaint, Kerr does not specify the allegations Kuhn made against her except that he accused her of “dishonest and unprofessional conduct.”  The full text of Kuhn’s statement would later be submitted under seal “to avoid unnecessary publication,” Kerr said.


The atmosphere of the meeting continued to sour, Kerr says, when Eagle informed her that, though she could appeal the denial of her credits, it would ultimately come through her, and she would provide the Kuhn statement to any prospective employers if she went through with it.  Because she had at least two middle schools interested in hiring her, Kerr says she became “tearful and emotional” resulting in Eagle concluding the meeting.


According to her complaint, Kerr says she could not formally appeal the denial of her credit hours until it was made part of her educational record on Dec. 15.  However, prior to that, Kerr says she made a concerted effort to impress upon Southard, Bailey and Eagle the ramifications of their decision which could include legal action against them, and MU.


The correspondence during the interim 10 days, Kerr says, was “perfunctory at best [and] adversarial at worst…with zero responsibility or concern for the harm [she] would incur from their actions.”


Though Kerr did initiate an appeal, she unequivocally called the process a “kangaroo court” as everyone who heard it, including David Pittenger, MUGC’s dean, “relied on pretextual excuses to rubber-stamp the wrongful conduct.”  Likewise, Kerr alleges in the course of the appeal process new false statements against her were raised at the second level, and, at the third level, Pittenger “concocted a new pretext asserting [her] report to Marshall (on the very day she learned of defendant Kuhn’s deception) was so untimely as to be null and void.”


In her complaint, Kerr alleges those in the teaching program had ulterior motives to deny her the credits necessary to complete her Master’s degree. Without offering details, Kerr maintains Southard and Bailey took upon themselves to deny her the credit hours “motivated by their knowledge of [her] homosexual orientation, of which they learned on or about August, 2013.”


Regardless, as a result of contesting the denial of her credit hours, Kerr says she suffered a relapse of high blood pressure.  Also, the ordeal caused her to develop chronic acid reflux - “a condition from which she never previously suffered.”


However, for both she has to take daily medication “which limits her activities, and causes physical discomfort.”


Along with civil rights violations, Kerr’s complaint includes claims of defamation against MU, Kuhn, Southard and Bailey and violation of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act against MU and Kuhn.  On the latter, Kerr alleges Kuhn’s absences from the classroom, and the subsequent denial of her credit hours puts MU on the hook to pay her for the work she performed as a de facto substitute teacher.              


Along with unspecified damages, recovery of court costs and attorneys fees, Kerr seeks an injunction compelling MU to award her credit for her Fall 2013 courses and Master’s Degree in teaching, recommend her for a teaching certificate in Social Studies grades 5-12 and purge her academic record of all “false and defamatory statements.”  She is representing herself.


The case is assigned to Judge Thomas E. Johnston.


U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, case number 2:  14-cv-12333

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