Zhang loses suit against WKU

Tessa Duvall

A jury ruled 9 to 3 early Thursday evening against a former WKU employee who claimed she was fired from her job because she was pregnant.

Junlian Zhang, a former researcher for the Institute for Combustion Sciences and Environmental Technology, sued WKU on charges of pregnancy discrimination. She also sought lost wages and benefits, expenses for moving and attending a job fair, and up to $500,000 in mental and emotional distress.

The verdict came after a three-day trial at the Warren County Justice Center.

Attorney Greg Stivers said the verdict was very gratifying, especially for ICSET Director Wei-Ping Pan, who had been unfairly criticized over several years because of the lawsuit, Stivers said.

Zhang had testified previously that Pan often yelled at her and called her lazy.

Zhang and her attorney, Pam Bratcher, were unavailable immediately after the verdict was announced.

Closing arguments began at 1 p.m.

Stivers recapped the entire timeline of Zhang’s employment at WKU, beginning with her interview in the summer of 2006.

By mid-September, a performance contract was implemented for Zhang, and on Nov. 1 Zhang was transferred to work under the supervision of Pauline Norris, a graduate student at the time.

There was no hope for improvement in Zhang’s performance weeks before Norris or Pan knew she was pregnant, Stivers told the jury.

Zhang was a bad fit at ICSET from the beginning, and it wasn’t fair to blame that on WKU, Stivers said.

In her closing argument, Bratcher told the jury Zhang received a December 2006 letter saying she was performing on an acceptable level, so problems she had before that didn’t matter.

By the Jan. 8, 2007 meeting of Pan, Norris and Human Resources Director Tony Glisson, Zhang had not gotten another performance plan nor had she lost another contract.

But on Jan. 9, Norris and another ICSET employee admitted to speculating if Zhang was pregnant or not.

When Pan learned of Zhang’s pregnancy on Jan. 17, he immediately called Glisson.

In the end, Bratcher urged the jury to look out for Zhang, who she said was powerless in her situation.