Zhang suit against WKU in court today

Tessa Duvall

The case of a former WKU employee who claims the university discriminated against her because she was pregnant goes to trial today.

Junlian Zhang, a former researcher for the Institute for Combustion Science and Environmental Technology, claims she was fired from her job because she was pregnant, Zhang’s attorney Pam Bratcher said.

Deborah Wilkins, chief of staff and general counsel, said the university had no knowledge of Zhang’s pregnancy, and the termination was due to poor job performance.

Zhang was hired in August 2006 and almost immediately had performance issues, Wilkins said.

A plan to improve Zhang’s performance was put in place, and Zhang was told if she didn’t improve, she would be fired, Wilkins said.

After the plan was implemented, Zhang still had problems, so she was transferred to work in another area with a different supervisor, Wilkins said.

The problems continued, and Zhang was told in January 2007 that she would be fired at the end of the month, Wilkins said.

Zhang’s termination was approved by her supervisor, the director of ICSET, Wilkins and Human Resources Director Tony Glisson, Wilkins said.

Bratcher said Zhang was fired on Feb. 5, 2007 – 19 days after Zhang’s superior confronted her about her pregnancy, which Zhang had not revealed at work.

Zhang’s supervisors monitored how often she went to the restroom and required her to work 10 to 12 hours a day, every day of the week, which was impossible with her pregnancy, Bratcher said.

The sole claim of pregnancy discrimination is relevant because Zhang couldn’t work long hours and needed time off for doctors’ visits and, eventually, maternity leave, Bratcher said.

According to court documents, Zhang also brought charges of invasion of privacy against the university, but they were later dismissed by the judge.

Because Zhang lost her job, she also lost her H1B visa status, which led to uncertainty for Zhang and her baby, born March 1, 2007, Bratcher said.

According to information on the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website, the H1B visa allows for non-citizens to come to the United States temporarily to perform specialty services, work for the Department of Defense, or work as a fashion model.

Zhang eventually got her visa status changed to tourist, but the period of uncertainty caused her a great deal of distress, Bratcher said.

“She suffered great emotional abuse because of the action that was taken against her from the ICSET director,” she said.

Bratcher said she feels Zhang has a strong case, and they look forward to having a jury hear it.