Testimony in Zhang case continues

The trial of a former WKU employee who claims she was wrongfully fired continued today with testimony from several witnesses for both the plaintiff and the defense at the Warren County Justice Center.

Junlian Zhang, a former researcher for the Institute for Combustion Sciences and Environmental Technology, claims she was fired from her job because she was pregnant, and testified to that effect on Tuesday.

Wednesday began with Zhang’s attorney, Pam Bratcher, calling Cheryl Lewis-Smith to the stand.

Smith, a former Human Resources manager at WKU, testified that she first met Zhang in the fall of 2006 after someone recommended Zhang to her.

Zhang was concerned about her future at ICSET. ICSET Director Wei-Ping Pan called Zhang lazy, told her she was developing “American habits” and threatened to deport her, Lewis-Smith testified.

“That was very disturbing to her,” she said.

Lewis-Smith said she saw Zhang for the second time around the winter break. It was at this time Lewis-Smith said she began to search for another job on campus for Zhang.

Zhang later went to Lewis-Smith’s office crying because she received her termination letter, Lewis-Smith said. Zhang was confused because before the break, she had been told her performance had improved.

It was at this time Zhang revealed that she was pregnant to Lewis-Smith and was concerned about no longer having benefits. Zhang also said she felt discriminated against, Lewis-Smith said. She suggested Zhang go to the Equal Opportunities Office to further address that claim.

Lewis-Smith went to on to claim that she faced repercussions for trying to assist Zhang. She said the consequences didn’t come immediately, but when the HR department was restructured, her job was eliminated and her responsibilities were given to other employees.

She believed this was because of her involvement in cases like Zhang’s and others.

During the cross examination by WKU’s attorney, Greg Stivers, Lewis-Smith said she was made aware that she was losing her job after a disagreement with her supervisor, Tony Glisson, director of Human Resources at WKU.

She also said she was not aware of Zhang’s performance plan details because she typically didn’t deal with those issues.

Next, Carol Porter, a former WKU employee in the Office of International Programs, was called to the stand by Bratcher.

Porter helped Zhang get her initial visa paperwork filed with the U.S. Department of Labor and the Department of Justice, she said.

Zhang and Porter met a few times to get everything worked out with the paperwork, and Zhang began to express problems with ICSET.

It wasn’t until after Zhang was fired that Porter learned of the pregnancy.

She was “frightened about her future,” Porter said of Zhang.

Because of her pregnancy, Zhang was not allowed to fly back to China. But because she had been terminated, her visa would no longer allow her to stay in the country.

Porter said she was concerned about Zhang and worked to help her get her visa status changed to tourist so she could stay in the country.

Glisson told her to stay out of it, Porter testified.

Porter also said Zhang was not the first Chinese employee of ICSET to express concerns about their work environment at ICSET.

When Stivers questioned Porter, she said Zhang told her in December and January that she was afraid to be fired, but she never mentioned pregnancy being one of her concerns.

Glisson was the next to testify. He said he was made aware of Zhang’s performance issues in the fall of 2006. He also said he had heard other complaints about Pan at ICSET, but Pan expected long hours out of all employees, and not just Zhang.

On Dec. 8, 2006, Glisson received an e-mail from Pan saying Zhang would keep her job unless other performance issue arose.

It wasn’t until Jan. 17, 2007 that Glisson was made aware of Zhang’s pregnancy by Pan. Glisson said he was not made aware of every employee pregnancy on campus, but he thought Pan let him know because he was concerned about how Zhang should be treated.

Treat her like any other employee, but allow time off when she needs it, Glisson said he advised Pan.

Bratcher then brought forward an e-mail sent by Zhang’s supervisor, Pauline Norris, to Pan about Zhang’s performance. Pan forwarded the e-mail to Glisson, and in his response, he encouraged them to deal with her until the end of the month, when she would be terminated.

When Stivers questioned Glisson, he used e-mails and letters to show the jury that Zhang’s problems had everything to do with her performance and lack of motivation, and not her pregnancy.

Glisson first got involved with Zhang’s case in Sept. 2006 after Pan requested help to implement a performance plan.

Then, on Oct. 17, Pan sent an e-mail to Glisson saying Zhang’s performance was still not good and it was now affecting customer relationships.

Zhang was later moved to work under Norris, but her performance did not improve, Glisson said.

Stivers showed a letter dated Nov. 1, 2006 from Pan, which said he was still concerned about Zhang’s work.

On Dec. 8, 2006, a letter to Zhang told her that her performance would continue to be monitored. At the time, Pan was out of the country.

On Jan. 4, 2007, e-mails from Norris were forwarded to Glisson from Pan. In the e-mails, Norris continues to explain her concerns with Zhang.

On Jan. 8, Norris, Pan and Glisson met to discuss the options for Zhang. Pan and Norris agreed that they didn’t think Zhang could continue. On Jan. 9, the letter for her termination was drafted, which was before they knew of her pregnancy.

At the end of January, the decision to fire Zhang was suggested. On Feb. 1, a chain of e-mails show the approval for her termination. Zhang’s termination letter was drafted on Feb. 5.

Glisson said pregnancy had nothing to do with Zhang’s termination.

Zhang’s benefits were extended through April so she would have insurance when she had her baby. Glisson said this was out of consideration for Zhang, not because WKU had done something wrong.

He also said Lewis-Smith’s position elimination had nothing to do with Zhang. She was just one of more than 50 employees at WKU who were eliminated through the last two years due to budget cuts.

Pan was called to the stand next.

Bratcher asked if Pan had ever told Zhang she was lazy, or that she had been in America “too long” and was developing American habits.

“No, I am an American citizen,” he said.

Bratcher also asked why Pan put Zhang-who has a Ph.D.-under the supervision of Norris, who was working on her master’s degree.

Norris was the longest-serving employee at ICSET at the time, and her experience was more important than her degree level, Pan said.

He said he found out Zhang was pregnant on Jan. 17, 2007, and spoke with Glisson about the situation. Glisson told him to make sure Zhang had enough time to go to doctor’s appointments, make sure she didn’t do any heavy lifting and to extend his best wishes to Zhang.

He said he met with Zhang and did just that, but her performance issues from before did not improve.

Pan said he was afraid to wait too much longer to take action, because ICSET could continue to lose customers.

He said ICSET has only lost customers twice in the entire time of its existence, and both instances happened under Zhang’s watch.

The decision to fire Zhang had nothing to do with her being pregnant, Pan said.

“I have two children,” he said. Pan said Norris was also pregnant, and another employee had been pregnant while working at ICSET.

“(It was) only based on job performance,” Pan said.

Bratcher also brought up the fact that Pan received at $30,000 raise in July 2009, bringing his salary to more than $160,000. She asked if he thought that was a mark of approval of his work, and Pan said he thought it was.

Stivers asked Pan to explain what kind of research ICSET does. Pan said ICSET is made up of a mercury emissions control laboratory, a combustion laboratory and a thermal analysis laboratory, where Zhang worked.

Zhang failed to complete important paperwork and could not efficiently use or fix a machine that “we teach undergraduates (how to use),” Pan said.

Zhang testified yesterday that she was told it didn’t matter whether the data she gave to an ICSET customer was accurate, as long as it was completed quickly so the customer would pay ICSET.

Pan said this was not true, saying something like that would hurt ICSET’s reliability, and that he is constantly thinking about its mission and reliability.

“That’s why I’ve stayed (at WKU) for 25 years,” he said.

WKU history professor Richard Troutman testified next, saying that Zhang e-mailed him “out of the blue,” because she’d heard he was a friend to the Chinese and hoped he could help her find a lawyer, which he did.

He said he also talked to her after she had been fired. He said she didn’t seem visibly upset then, but told him that the university had discriminated against her.

Stivers read from Troutman’s January 2009 deposition, in which Troutman said that Zhang seemed as if “she was kind of looking forward to going to California with her boyfriend.”

Troutman said he didn’t remember that part, but if it was in the deposition, it must be true.

After Troutman’s testimony, Stivers filed a motion to direct a verdict, saying that performance issues such as the lost contracts and Norris’s daily reports pre-dated Zhang’s disclosure of her pregnancy.

“There’s no evidence that anything happened after Jan. 17 related to her pregnancy,” Stivers said.

Judge Steve Alan Wilson said that since Zhang was fired soon after she announced her pregnancy, a jury could still reasonably conclude that her pregnancy was a factor in her termination.

“It doesn’t have to be the sole factor, just a substantial factor,” Wilson said.

After Stivers’ motion was denied, he called Pauline Norris to the stand. Norris now works in the chemistry department, but was laboratory coordinator for ICSET at the time Zhang worked there.

Norris testified that there isn’t a lot of supervision at ICSET because Pan is often out of town, so employees are expected to get things done on their own and work efficiently.

Norris became Zhang’s supervisor on Nov. 1, 2006. Before then, Norris said she barely interacted with Zhang.

Norris assigned Zhang’s tasks, and provided performance reports to Pan and Zhang almost daily.

In an e-mail dated Nov. 15, Norris said Zhang could have used her time better. Going by time stamps on the testing Zhang was doing, Norris could only account for three and a half hours of Zhang’s work day.

In an e-mail just a few days later on Nov. 21, Norris said it took Zhang until Monday to do a task assigned on Thursday of the previous week.

By early December, Zhang’s performance had improved to the minimally acceptable level, Norris said.

This led to the letter Zhang received on Dec. 8 saying her performance had improved.

After winter break, Norris’s complaints about Zhang continued on Jan. 2, 2007. Norris told Zhang to be careful of making a mess after crushing coal, but Zhang continued to make messes.

Another day, Zhang only completed seven out of 21 samples she was assigned to complete.

At this point, Norris told Pan that Zhang’s work was not where it needed to be. Zhang required a lot of supervision, double-checking, and she made mistakes, Norris said.

“Usually at ICSET, you give someone a task and it gets done,” she said.

On January 8, Norris told Glisson and Pan that she didn’t think Zhang had the mindset required to work at ICSET.

Norris said it wasn’t until Jan. 17 that she knew Zhang was pregnant. When Norris, who was also pregnant at the time, saw Zhang without a jacket that she always wore, she realized she was pregnant and asked about it.

Because of the potentially hazardous conditions in the ISCET lab, Norris said she had assumed Zhang would come forward if she was pregnant. In order to allow her more time to rest, Zhang’s job was changed.

Bratcher pointed out the lack of documentation that was sent directly to Zhang.

There were no documents outlining her new safety precautions or telling Zhang about her new job after her pregnancy was revealed, Bratcher observed.

She also pointed out there was no documentation of the Jan. 8 meeting of Norris, Pan and Glisson, where they decided Zhang most likely could not continue at ICSET.

After the conclusion of Bratcher’s questions, court adjourned for the day. It will resume at 9 a.m. tomorrow.

Reporter Emily Ulber contributed to this report.