​Administrator files employment discrimination suit against U.Va.

Assistant vice provost alleges she was not paid equally to male counterparts

Marshall Bronfin | Cavalier Daily

Assistant Vice Provost Betsy Ackerson filed a lawsuit against the University in federal court Wednesday, alleging she was not paid equally to her male counterparts. Ackerson’s complaint claimed the University violated four federal laws — the Equal Pay Act of 1963, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

“This is a textbook case of employment discrimination and retaliation,” Adam Carter, Ackerson’s attorney from The Employment Law Group, said in a release. “U.Va. and its senior executives took full advantage of Dr. Ackerson’s skills, intelligence, and professional expertise to successfully complete some of the university’s highest priority projects, including its current strategic plan. At the same time, she was subjected to a pernicious pattern of discrimination and retaliation from these people.”

The University declined to comment on the case Wednesday.

According to court documents, Ackerson began working at the University in 2012 as project manager for strategic planning. She alleges her pay disparity began when her superior — former Senior Vice Provost Milton Adams — relied on her to perform much of the workload on the strategic planning project. The complaint said Adams later hired Charlie Feigenoff to do the same job as Ackerson, but at a higher salary.

“Ackerson frequently had to brief Feigenoff on the strategic plan, despite the fact that U.Va. paid him significantly more than it paid her,” the complaint reads.

The strategic plan, approved in 2013, developed into the Cornerstone Plan. The plan aims to increase residential culture, research and infrastructure, student engagement, faculty support and resources for affordable access.

Ackerson said in court documents that when she tried to address her pay alleged inequality, Adams and Nancy Rivers — chief of staff for University President Teresa Sullivan and associate vice president for administration — both agreed she deserved a higher salary.

“Rivers and Adams agreed that U.Va. had paid Ackerson too little money for the work she performed for U.Va.,” the complaint reads. “U.Va. later extended Ackerson's one-year contract, however the extension did not come with a higher salary as promised.”

After receiving a diagnosis for chronic fatigue syndrome in March 2014, the complaint says Ackerson took medical leave and returned to find her private office had been given to someone else and her private printer had been rescinded. According to the complaint, the lack of privacy in her office compromised the confidentiality of her work and the physical activity involved with walking to the printer aggravated her medical condition.

“Due to her job duties, Ackerson often needs to participate in phone conversations that involve sensitive information, which makes her assignment to a cubicle in an open area totally inappropriate and physically taxing on Ackerson,” the complaint reads.

After trying to address her underpayment and the misclassification of what her job entailed, Ackerson said in her complain that Adams and the University Human Resources department repeatedly delayed her new contracts. When she confronted Adams, she said she was allegedly threatened with losing her job.

“Adams told Ackerson that she risked losing her job if she mentioned the issue of unequal pay or the new three-year contract to anyone,” the complaint reads. “Ackerson took his statement as a threat.”

Ackerson first began discussing legal percussions with Carter and the University in September 2015. She received a pay raise in August 2016, but is still paid less than male counterparts.

“Late August of 2015 is when she came to us, so we have been in discussions with the University since September of 2015 would be my estimate,” Carter said in an interview with The Cavalier Daily.

According to Carter, the University and Sullivan were fully aware of Ackerson’s situation throughout Ackerson’s time at the University.

“My understanding is that President Sullivan had known about Dr. Ackerson’s pay disparity all the while,” he said.

Carter said this is not the first employment discrimination case he has worked on against the University, though it is the first that has to do with equal pay.

In 2012, Carter successfully represented former University laboratory researcher Weihua Huang, who claimed he was unfairly fired after reporting unauthorized alterations to a research grant. The court awarded Huang over $800,000 in the case.

“Dr. Ackerson is not just trying to do this for herself, but really for other women at this University and elsewhere because it’s just wrong,” Carter said.

The University has 60 days to respond to the lawsuit.

Full text of the complaint: 

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