University pays $145,000 to settle retaliation claim
By The Associated Press
MADISON, Wis. The state has paid $145,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by a University of Wisconsin-Madison employee who claimed she was passed over for a job after she criticized school policy.
The settlement, signed last month, includes $48,000 to Wanda Ashman in damages, $1,500 in lost wages and $95,000 in fees to her attorney, according to a copy released July 14 by the Department of Justice.
"We thought it was an excellent result," said Ashman's lawyer, Mary Kennelly.
Meanwhile, UW-Madison is moving to address the very policy Ashman criticized in 2001: its reliance on limited-term employees who earn lower salaries and have fewer benefits than permanent workers but often perform the same functions.
The university announced a plan last month that would convert an estimated 380 of those positions into permanent jobs over the next six to 10 years, acknowledging many departments were overusing the workers who often lack health-care, vacation and sick-leave benefits.
Ashman spent 14 years as a limited-term employee in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences before she persuaded her bosses to make her computer-technician job permanent. That required the job to be posted under civil service rules.
She claimed her bosses passed her over after she started speaking out about how she thought the university misused limited-term employees. She met with the chancellor and a state lawmaker and blasted the policy as "dishonest and irresponsible" in an article in a Madison alternative newspaper.
Ashman was let go and another woman who had no experience with a key database was given the job, even though she had to attend special training courses to learn the program, Kennelly said.
Ashman, who was hired into a similar position in another UW department, filed suit in 2004 alleging her supervisors violated her First Amendment right to free speech by retaliating against her. One of them in particular, associate dean Richard Barrows, was furious about her comments and steered the job to the other woman, she claimed.
A federal judge in Madison dismissed the suit last year, but the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago reinstated it last February.
Shortly before a trial was scheduled to begin, Ashman and the university agreed to the settlement, the bulk of which came from the state's risk-management fund, according to Mike Bauer, spokesman for the state Department of Justice, which represented UW.
Ashman's lawyer said on July 14 that the university made a costly mistake by passing over Ashman for the job and then missing several chances to settle the matter.
"It was a totally ridiculous thing for them to do to react the way they did and hire someone with no experience in this position," Kennelly said.
UW officials involved in the case were not available to comment for this story, said UW-Madison spokesman Brian Mattmiller. In court papers, the university claimed Ashman did not get the position because the job description changed, rendering her unqualified, and she finished 20th out of 34 applicants in an exam.
Under the new guidelines announced June 27, the university will only use limited-term employees for irregular and seasonal functions such as internships or jobs that have a clear start and end date.
In the meantime, the university will begin converting some of the 2,500 appointments on campus to permanent positions over the next several years and ensure all of them earn a living wage of $10.23 per hour by next July.
The living-wage provision will cost an estimated $900,000 per year, said Mark Walters, a top UW-Madison human resources official. He said the school had not calculated the cost of the conversions, some of which will require approval from the Department of Administration and state lawmakers.
The use of limited-term employees grew as a result of budget pressures, Walters said.
"Under current state laws, you could have an LTE that works half-time for 10 years," he said. "We believe that's not the correct intent and that's what should be considered permanent functions."