A D.C. Superior Court jury awarded $375,000 yesterday to Marie L. Best, a former professor who sued Howard University after she was fired by its pharmacy school.
The verdict, which followed a four-day trial on damages featuring expert witnesses with complex charts, replaced an $851,000 award that Best originally won last July when the university was found liable for improperly breaking her contract. But it is still the largest award so far in a string of lawsuits against Howard by dissatisfied employes.
In the last two years, D.C. juries have also decided against the university in two other cases, one now on appeal, and Howard has settled six more cases. The cases involve a total of 13 professors and other employes.
Across the country there has been an upsurge of lawsuits against many universities over the past decade. But according to experts in the field, the number of decisions and settlements involving Howard has been unusually high.
There has been a wide range of complaints against Howard: breach of contract in many variations and discrimination in several forms--against whites and Africans, women and men.
Last April a jury awarded a total of $193,911 to five Africans dismissed as junior faculty members in Howard's African studies program, in a case now being appealed. In June 1981, a male curator in the Howard art gallery won about $43,000 in back pay and legal expenses in a sex discrimination suit.
Although the amount of most of the settlements has not been disclosed, sources familiar with the cases say Howard's total settlements have exceeded $175,000 in the past two years.
Settlements are an agreement between two sides to end a case, and conain no court finding of fault. They can occur for a variety of reasons, including a desire to avoid the high costs of litigation.
Court cases now pending against Howard include three by white professors, claiming discrimination and breach of contract, and one, scheduled for trial tomorrow, by a black professor, Benjamin Cooke, who says he was discriminated against because his wife is white. Cooke also charges breach of contract.
All four faculty members were dismissed by the university. Another professor accuses Howard of improperly demoting him.
In court papers, Howard denies all these accusations.
Recently, in a case widely publicized in the campus newspaper, The Hilltop, a male attorney for the university filed a sex discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that Howard's chief counsel, also male, gave favored treatment to women.
Despite several phone calls to their offices, neither university president James Cheek nor general counsel Dorsey Lane would comment on any of the legal activity. Alan Hermesch, the university spokesman to whom the calls were referred, declined to discuss any specific cases, saying it is "the policy of the university not to comment on anything in litigation."
Hermesch said that Howard, which receives extensive federal support, is committed to non-discrimination and fair treatment of employes. He said the predominantly black university has historically employed a higher proportion of non-blacks than the proportion of blacks "that you would find at predominantly white institutions." No recent figures on the racial composition of Howard's faculty are available.
Hermesch said women hold posts "in every echelon of the university."
George R. LaNoue, who is studying college employment litigation nationwide under a grant from the Carnegie Corporation, said the number of verdicts and settlements involving Howard was unusually high. A similar opinion was expressed by Jordan E. Kurland, associate general secretary of the American Association of University Professors.
"I don't know whether Howard has been right or wrong on these things," said LaNoue, a political science professor at the Baltimore County campus of the University of Maryland, "but this is an unusual amount of activity at a single place."
Around the country, LaNoue said, universities have won most of the employment cases against them, but of those that colleges lost, "a disproportionately high number" have involved whites at predominantly black institutions, among them Dillard, Alabama State and Jackson State.
The black colleges face a "particularly difficult personnel problem," LaNoue said, because only 2 percent of PhD holders are black. If they hire "on a color-blind basis," as federal judges insist, their faculties may become mostly white, he said, which is "politically and philosophically unacceptable to their constituency."
According to court records, university officials and faculty groups, the University of the District of Columbia is the only college in the Washington area besides Howard to have lost or settled cases brought by employes in recent years.
UDC has been ordered by federal judges in the past year to pay a total of about $75,000 plus legal fees, as yet undetermined, to a white and an Hispanic professor, each of whom accused the college of racial discrimination. The college has also agreed to pay $45,000 to settle a race discrimination suit by another white professor, and has granted reinstatement and $21,000 back pay to settle a sex discrimination complaint by a female basketball coach.
In her suit against Howard, Best contended that improper procedures were used in her dismissal in 1979, and said she was subject to harassment. She said her treatment was "based upon sexual considerations."
In her first trial, Judge Carlisle E. Pratt ruled against Best's claim of sex discrimination but found that Howard had breached her contract as a tenured professor. The jury gave her $851,000, but Pratt later ruled that the verdict was too high because Best's testimony, which included accounts of unwanted hugging and stroking by a male dean, had "inflamed the jury."
The new trial before Judge Bruce Mencher was confined to the issue of damages, based on how much Best, 50, might earn until retirement age.
Yesterday, Richard J. Hopkins, an attorney for the university, said it is "highly probable" that the case would be appealed.
In the other jury verdicts:
Howard was found liable for breach of contract in dismissing the five Africans in 1977. Julian Tepper, the lawyer for the group, said they contended in the suit that "a conscious effort was made to purge all of the full-time non-tenured Africans" from the African studies program, an accusation that Howard denied. One of the plaintiffs, Ng'weno Osolo-Nasubo, testified that a black American dean said he "was not going to hire an African whose name he could not pronounce."
The jury awarded the five, Osolo-Nasubo, Kwado Pobbi-Asamani, Galal A. Badr, Thophilus N. Igboeli and Yelledth Y. Zungu, a total of $193,911. Judge Pratt reduced the award to $168,492, and Howard has appealed the verdict.
Alden J. Lawson was reinstated as curator of Howard's art gallery and awarded $34,318 in back pay and $9,000 in legal fees. Lawson had filed a sex discrimination suit, saying he was fired after he resisted the "repeated sexual advances" of his female supervisor in Washington and during a trip to Egypt.
Howard and the supervisor, gallery director Starmanda Bullock, denied the charges. The jury found in Lawson's favor, and Howard did not appeal.
John M. Clifford, who represented Best and the plaintiffs in several other major suits, said he thought Howard was vulnerable to legal action because the university grew rapidly over the past decade without establishing careful personnel procedures.
"They used to be run like a family store," Clifford said, "and they just didn't put the procedures in place."
University spokesman Hermesch said Howard has employe handbooks spelling out policies for dealing with its 2,000 faculty members and roughly 5,000 other employes. "There's also a grievance procedure that's open to whomever," he said. "If they do not feel satisfied, they can always take the next step" of legal action.
In 1981, Howard settled lawsuits brought by two whites, Rolin Sidwell and Suzanne Saul, who were fired from its English department. A suit by a third white dismissed from the department, Abby A. Johnson, is awaiting trial.
Complaints, affidavits and depositions filed in the Sidwell and Johnson cases contended that there was a deliberate effort to reduce the number of whites in the English department. Howard denied the allegations.
English department chairman Estelle Taylor said in a deposition that there was no policy to hire blacks "instead of whites." At the same time, she said, university administrators were trying to hire "as many competent blacks as they can get."
According to court papers, Saul was paid $45,000. The amount of Sidwell's settlement was not disclosed.
Plaintiffs in other cases that Howard settled for undisclosed amounts were Ted E. Roberts, an African reinstated to his teaching post in the communications department; Joseph Durham, ousted as dean of the school of education; Bunyan-Nathaniel Knight, a former university fund-raiser, and Olivia Rivers, a fired dance instructor.
Durham won $113,000 in a jury verdict in 1978 and Knight $234,000 at a trial in 1979. With an appeal pending in Knight's case and a new trial ordered in Durham's, both plaintiffs settled for less in 1981.
The cases now pending include a complaint by Gabrielle Turgeon--denied by Howard--that she was fired in 1979 as a French language teacher because she is white.
Turgeon also alleged breach of contract, a charge on which U.S. District Judge Aubrey E. Robinson Jr. entered a judgment in her favor last week based on papers filed in court. A trial on the discrimination claim and damages is scheduled for March 10.
In the sex discrimination case recently filed with the EEOC, Michael Harris, an attorney for the university, contended that chief counsel Lane gave favored treatment to women in pay and promotion opportunities.