A D.C. Superior Court jury awarded damages of $1 million yesterday to Marie L. Best, a former professor who sued Howard University after she was fired from her position, which she claimed was tenured.
The jury ruled that Best was owed the $1 million in damages because the university had broken its contract by unfairly dismissing her when in fact she was a tenured employe.
In addition, the jury found that Best had been sexually harassed by Wendell Hill, dean of Howard's College of Pharmacy, but awarded her only $10 in damages for the harassment.
Best charged in her lawsuit that Howard used improper procedures in her dismissal in 1979. She said her treatment was "based upon sexual considerations."
"We are appalled," Richard Thornell, vice president and general counsel of the university, said yesterday.
"The verdict is outrageous and unprecedented in our experience. The university plans to pursue vigorously an appeal if the trial judge does not grant the relief that we deserve," Thornell said.
Superior Court Judge Peter Wolf, who heard the case, is empowered to alter the jury's award if he chooses.
Thornell said, "We do want to make it clear that the verdict of $1 million pertains to indefinite tenure, not sex harassment."
Frederick Abramson, a lawyer who represented the university in the case, said, "The jury incorrectly decided that Dr. Best had been granted indefinite tenure for a lifetime contract of employment by the university. The evidence clearly does not support that conclusion."
Yesterday's award followed a series of three trials of the case, which began in 1979 and first went to trial in 1983. In the first round, Best was awarded $851,000 for breach of contract. In the second, the award was reduced to $375,000.
Both Howard and Best appealed that award to the D.C. Court of Appeals, which overturned the verdict against Howard and ordered a new trial.
The case hinged on whether Best automatically was entitled to tenure because the university gave her late notice that her contract would not be renewed.
Tenure at a university essentially guarantees a professor lifetime employment.
Yesterday, Best's attorney, John Clifford, said he was satisfied with the jury's decision and felt "relieved, finally."
Best worked at the university for three years, starting as a professor working part-time hours before she was promoted to a full-time position. She also served as chairman of the pharmacy department and as acting dean of the College of Pharmacy.
In an interview yesterday, Best said, "After I was fired, no one would hire me. My career in pharmacy is essentially destroyed. I'm extremely pleased that the jury heard the facts and rendered a positive verdict in my favor." Best said she would use the $1 million award to "pay a stack of bills and make some investments."