Former general counsel sues WKU, claims discrimination, fraud

The+WKU+Title+IX+Office+on+November+29%2C+2021%2C+shortly+after+Wilkins+termination.

Gabi Broekema

The WKU Title IX Office on November 29, 2021, shortly after Wilkins’ termination.

Michael Crimmins, Investigative Reporter

Deborah Wilkins, WKU’s former general counsel and Title IX coordinator, sued the university on Thursday, alleging age and sex discrimination and a concerted effort to damage her career and reputation.

Filled on April 21 by Bowling Green attorney Matthew Baker in the Warren Circuit Court, the suit alleges Wilkins experienced discrimination on the basis of age and gender, retaliation for participation in protected activity, tortious interference with a contractual relationship, breach of contract and fraud. 

The lawsuit includes 13 counts, ranging from breach of contract to “intentional infliction of emotional distress.” 

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Six defendants are listed: Western Kentucky University; WKU President Timothy Caboni; Phillip Bale, chair of the WKU Board of Regents; David Brinkley, the elected staff regent and director of Educational Telecommunications at WKU; Susan Howarth, executive vice president for strategy, operations and finance; and Tony Glisson, retired director of human resources.

Readers should note allegations in a lawsuit represent only one side of the story. WKU has not yet filed a response. The full lawsuit can be found below:

Wilkins vs. WKU et al

Gregg Hovious, WKU’s outside counsel from the Louisville law firm Middleton-Reutlinger, said:

“WKU intends to vigorously defend against Ms. Wilkins’ baseless claims against it. While the university acknowledges her long tenure as former general counsel and later Title IX Coordinator, Ms. Wilkins’ unpredictable behavior escalated to a point that she could no longer be trusted to fulfill the duties of her employment agreement or advance the interest of the university. Her increasingly aggressive and unprofessional conduct created an environment that was both intimidating and unproductive. We look forward to filing our formal response to her suit, including a motion to dismiss with additional information supporting the action taken by the university.”

Who is Deborah Wilkins?

Wilkins was originally hired by Thomas Meredith, former president of WKU, as general counsel in 1994. The lawsuit states she was the first female general counsel and first female administrator to be awarded a contract at WKU.

After 21 years as WKU’s sole legal counsel, former WKU President Gary Ransdell approved the creation of an assistant general counsel position. Wilkins recommended Andrea Anderson for the job after a position search. Anderson was appointed general counsel in May 2020, when Caboni removed Wilkins from the position and named Wilkins the interim Title IX coordinator and special assistant to the president.

Wilkins was terminated on Nov. 22, 2021, and the Title IX role was assigned to Anderson. Wilkins’ termination letter, signed by Caboni but delivered to her by Provost Bud Fischer, said Wilkins was being removed “because it is apparent you can no longer well and faithfully serve the University.” Wilkins is still under contract until June 30, 2022.

The lawsuit describes a strained relationship between Wilkins and Caboni, who assumed the presidency of WKU in 2017.

A year into his presidency, according to the lawsuit, Caboni “advised” Wilkins that the general counsel’s office would be relocated from its space adjacent to the president’s office in Craig Administrative Center to a suite in Wetherby Administration Building, nearby. Since she had been at WKU, the suit said, Wilkins’ office had always been in close proximity to the president’s.

That allowed her, according to the suit, to have easy access to the president whenever an issue would arise. While Caboni told her the move to Wetherby was being made to free an office for a new vice president for public affairs, that space remains vacant, according to the lawsuit.

During 2018 and 2020 Caboni “undertook a series of administrative reorganizations,” the suit says. As a result of the reorganization, the membership of the president’s cabinet was “almost completely reconstituted.” The only cabinet members who were at WKU before Caboni became president were Wilkins and Athletics Director Todd Stewart, according to the suit.  

“Each new Provost and Vice President selected by Caboni and appointed to their position was less experienced than Wilkins, younger in age than Wilkins, and was awarded a salary well in excess of the salary being earned by Wilkins,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit states that in 2019 “without any request for the [director of athletics]” Caboni, with the Board of Regents approval, extended his contract and included a salary increase of $70,000. The lawsuit states he was both younger and less experienced than Wilkins.

Wilkins ousted as general counsel

The lawsuit states that Caboni questioned Wilkins about considering retirement, and whether Anderson had been brought on as part of a “succession plan.” Wilkins affirmed that she wanted to see Anderson promoted to the role of general counsel, the lawsuit said, but that “Wilkins denied any intent or desire to retire.”

Additionally, Caboni and Wilkins discussed the possibility of Wilkins’ contract being “bought out,” but she questioned how the university would be able to fund it. Ultimately, Caboni told Wilkins that a national search would be conducted once the general counsel position was vacant. 

Caboni told Wilkins that “Anderson could apply for the vacancy, but would not be promoted to the position,” the suit states.

According to the lawsuit, Anderson was offered a city attorney position in the first week of April 2020. Wilkins advised that Anderson should inform Caboni of the job offer. The lawsuit states that Caboni immediately contacted Wilkins with an offer to buy out her contract of employment. 

Wilkins accepted the buyout, but before any documents were drafted regarding the agreement, Caboni informed Wilkins that the “Board will not approve the buyout offer” and that the offer was “off the table.”

Afterwards, Caboni informed Wilkins that he intended to remove her from her position as general counsel and would instead put her in a newly-created position. The lawsuit states “[…] if she refused to accept the reassignment, Caboni would terminate her employment immediately,” Caboni informed Wilkins that her position would be eliminated on June 30, 2022, when her current contract expired. 

Anderson was ultimately appointed as WKU’s general counsel with five years of experience and “was not yet 38 years of age,” the suit says. Anderson’s salary immediately increased from $83,299 to $178,164 – matching Wilkins’ salary after her 25 years working at WKU. 

The lawsuit says Caboni stated Wilkins’ duties would be added to “a reconfigured position at a lower salary” and that Wilkins had agreed to retire – to which Wilkins responded that she did not agree to retire and would perform the additional duties. 

Wilkins noticed that neither her name nor position were included in the budgeted salary listings for WKU’s 2020-2021 operating budget. 

Twelve days after the Board of Regents approved Anderson’s appointment as general counsel and Wilkins’ transition to Title IX coordinator, according to the suit, Caboni directed his staff to submit a “Request to Modify a Position” through WKU’s Interview Exchange, which tracks employment at the university.

Her employee status was modified from “Full Time Regular Assignment” to “Full Time Limited Assignment (with an End Date)” because her contract of employment at WKU was set to end on June 30, 2022.

The suit states that Caboni’s actions violated WKU policy, procedure and “directly contravened the action taken by the Board of Regents just twelve days earlier” and that Wilkins was given neither notice of the change in status “nor any reason for the action stated.” The suit claims that, under WKU policy and Kentucky Law, the change in status should have been recommended by Caboni for approval from the Board of Regents in a formal meeting, but never was.

Lawsuit: Violations, but “no action was taken”

The suit alleges Wilkins learned that “high level administrators” were engaged in “multiple, separate/distinct instances of serious WKU policy and procedure violations related to Equal Opportunity/ADA/Affirmative Action and Title IX.”

According to the lawsuit, the complaints concerning the violations were separately reported by WKU employees to Wilkins and then-Title IX coordinator Andrea Anderson. Wilkins, in turn, reported these to Caboni and the respective responsible senior division administrator, “yet no action was taken toward any of the administrators who were involved in the policy and procedure violations.”

The suit states that, in January 2019, Wilkins initiated a meeting with “several high-level administrators” who were involved in the alleged violations. During this meeting, according to the suit, one administrator said to Wilkins: “Are you going to run to daddy?”

Wilkins reported concerns regarding her treatment to the director of Equal Opportunity/ADA/Affirmative Action Office and the director of Human Resources the same day and in writing the following day to Caboni. According to the suit, Caboni expressed “support for Wilkins” and “indicated that he would take action.”

One of the administrators involved referred to Wilkins as a “gender specific obscenity in public, in the presence of subordinate employees and members of the community.” A witness reported the comment to Wilkins, and she in turn reported it to Caboni, who assured that the conduct would be “addressed.”

In both cases, the suit states that no action was taken.

Lawsuit: Caboni falsified university policy 

President Caboni addresses the media on Thursday, April 14 ahead of the Commons’ opening on Monday. (Brittany Fisher)

In January 2021, Brinkley reached out to Wilkins regarding a hire he had initiated the month prior and subsequently submitted to Caboni for approval. Brinkley had conducted a search “to fill a vacant position in Public Television and Radio in the fall of 2020” and offered the position to a qualified female “over the age of 40” who, at the time, was employed at WKU in another position.

Brinkley told Wilkins he was informed by Caboni to “withdraw the position offer from the female employee.” According to Brinkley, Caboni informed him the employee could not transfer to another WKU position because she was under a “Plan of Improvement” regarding her performance at her current job, and because of this, “WKU policy doesn’t allow an employee to transfer to another position.”

When Brinkley asked Wilkins if this was true, Wilkins informed him there was no policy to this effect and that the employee in question was not under a Plan of Improvement, “yet Brinkley nevertheless withdrew the offer of the position and the female employee eventually resigned from WKU.”

Lawsuit: Staff discouraged from seeking salary information

Wilkins was elected to the WKU Staff Senate in spring 2021. The suit states that at the time of her election, staff expressed concern about issues including “the lack of wage/salary adjustments.”

According to the suit, Brinkley was “aware of the discussions concerning staff salaries, work conditions, and expenditures related to the service contracts.” It also makes mention of the fact that Brinkley reports directly to Caboni.

The suit states that Wilkins recommended the Senate request further details regarding the stated issues, but Brinkley, “supported by the Chair and two Senate officers, openly discouraged any efforts to obtain information from administration on these issues.” The suit states that the Chair and the officers “are supervised” in their WKU jobs by Brinkley.

Following this, effective July 1, 2021, Brinkley received a salary increase from $95,000 to $120,600. Additionally, the Senate chair and two officers were also approved for “substantial, double-digit salary adjustments effective the same date.”

The suit states that Wilkins, once these increases became known, proposed a budget resolution that would modify the allocation of the 1.5% “across the board” salary increase that went into effect January 2022 by “taking into consideration staff who had already been awarded increases in excess of 1.5%.”

According to the suit, Wilkins received “threatening, critical and accusatory” messages from persons identifying themselves as Staff Senate members. Wilkins then resigned from her Senate position.

Lawsuit: Wilkins “wrongfully terminated”

The lawsuit alleges that, two days before WKU closed for Thanksgiving break in November 2021, Caboni “wrongfully terminated” Wilkins’ employment.

In the week before Thanksgiving, the provost’s office staff contacted her to inform her that she would need to meet with Provost Bud Fischer on Monday, Nov. 22, 2021. She left her office in Downing Student Union for the meeting and locked her doors because no one else would be in the office. 

Awaiting Wilkins at the provost’s office in Wetherby were Provost Bud Fischer, Board of Regents Chair Phillip Bale and a male attorney. Upon Wilkins’ arrival, she was informed she was being “relieved of her job duties … effective immediately.”

“WKU officials have indicated in response to formal requests that no documents or records of complaints against, towards or involving Wilkins, no disciplinary action and/or no alleged actual policy violation reports exist,” the lawsuit states.

The provost hand-delivered a letter from Caboni to Wilkins and, according to the suit, told her: “I am to give you this letter and ask you to read it.”

Former general counsel and interim Title IX coordinator, Deborah Wilkins, sued the university on Thursday.

“The University is taking this action because it is apparent you can no longer well and faithfully serve the University. You have relinquished – or failed to do – the tasks assigned to you, demonstrating that you are no longer devoting your full time and attention to your job duties,” the letter states. 

According to the suit, Caboni did not meet with Wilkins regarding her termination or the letter. The lawsuit states he did not meet with her after May 2020.

After reading the letter, the suit says, the provost read a statement informing Wilkins that she was “immediately prohibited from returning to her office in the Downing Student Union, from that point forward or for any reason.”

Fischer then directed Wilkins to surrender her office and building keys “immediately,” the suit says.

Wilkins informed all three men that she was responsible for closing her father’s estate and that those records would need to be retrieved from her office. She was told that if there is personal property in her office that she wishes to retrieve, she was “only to contact” the attorney who was present at the meeting. 

Wilkins was “publicly escorted” by the male attorney from the provost’s office to her car located in the front of the building. All of this occurred on a regular work day during WKU’s regular operating hours.

While Wilkins was in the meeting where she was terminated, the suit says, WKU Information Technology staff suspended Wilkins’ access to her WKU TopNet – which contains personal information – and her WKU email address. 

The lawsuit states that Wilkins’ WKU email address, which she thought was shut down after her termination, was viewed by  “university officials” and the officials were “forwarding and responding to messages” and her address continued to be published in various course syllabi across the university.

“All of these actions were taken without Wilkins’ knowledge or permission and are in direct violation of WKU policy,” the lawsuit states. “…and the parties to Title IX issues continued to communicate with this email address believing they were communicating with Wilkins.”

Investigative Reporter Michael Crimmins can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @michael_crimm.